Why It’s So Important to Stop Conflating Racism With Mental Illness


Cometh the mass shooting by a white man, cometh the talk of mental illness. It’s already been well documented that when people of color carry out mass killings, they’re called terrorists, whereas with white men there are a whole lot of crocodile tears about the state of America’s mental health system.

The problem, as Salon’s Arthur Chu points out, is that “mental illness” is too often used as a vehicle for the abrogation of responsibility. It’s invoked in public discourse the same way that insanity is invoked in court: as a means of arguing that the person in question was a one-off, their actions incomprehensible to people who don’t share their delusions. The fact that this defense gets applied disproportionately to white men is itself racist, of course; it implies that there’s no way a sane white man would do such a terrible thing, whereas non-white people are just, y’know, kinda like that anyway.

Beyond this, though, it also does everyone a disservice to immediately turn the conversation to mental illness, because there’s no evidence that it was mental illness that caused Dylann Roof to murder nine people in cold blood. There is plenty of evidence, however, that it was his racist beliefs — beliefs on the basis of which he carried out a mass killing.

But is racism itself — or, at least, the form of extreme, violent racism that leads one to believe that African Americans need to be exterminated because they’re “taking over” — a form of mental illness? You might argue that you can separate out the actions of a crazy person from those of a sane one by the fact that the latter’s are grounded in reality. Insanity as a criminal defense rests on this idea: that a person cannot be held responsible for their actions if they’re unable to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Violent racism, clearly, is not grounded in reality — Alexander Stephens might have genuinely believed “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; [and] slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” but in 2015, you might as well believe the world is flat. There’s certainly nothing to justify the idea that African Americans are “taking over,” even if that was a bad thing — they remain uniquely disadvantaged.

The beliefs that drove Dylann Roof are beliefs to which some people in America — a minority, thankfully — cling despite overwhelming evidence that they have no basis in reality. In some contexts, we call that stubbornness. In others, we call it faith. And in different circumstances still, we call it mental illness.

In some cases, the reasons for this are perfectly clear: take the ghastly killing of the unfortunate man beheaded on a Greyhound bus in Canada in 2008, where defendant Vince Li was held not criminally responsible for his actions on the basis that he “believed he was chosen by God to save people from an alien attack.” He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and has responded to treatment to the extent that he was recently released to a group home.

Li is as textbook a case of violent mental illness as you might like (although it’s important to emphasize here that such cases are the vast minority). He carried out a killing on the basis of an entirely deluded view of reality, one that was grounded in a condition that is diagnosable and treatable. You might argue that the first part of that sentence, at least, is true in the case of the Charleston killer: he acted on the basis of a deluded view of reality, as even the most cursory reading of his manifesto will attest.

But this is a slippery criterion. Yesterday morning, for instance, Salon published an article about well-heeled homeowners in Southern California who insist on their right to water their lawns and argue that any attempt to get them to restrict water use is a case of “one group telling everyone else how they think everybody should live their lives.”

These people live in the middle of a desert at a time of historic drought. Are their views founded in reality? Nope. Are they crazy? There’s perhaps an argument to be made that they are. Are they all suffering from a mental illness? The intuitive answer, at least, is no, of course not — they’re just greedy assholes who adapt their view of reality to fit their view of how things should be. They’re delusional.

But delusions are a symptom of many mental illnesses, no? And when you start thinking about what constitutes a delusion, too, things get muddy. There are studies that show that people with depression — something we consider a quantifiable, diagnosable mental illness — often have more realistic outlooks than non-depressed people. It seems that our “normal” state of mind is to overestimate our abilities and be overoptimistic about the future; depression, then, could just be a case of seeing things how they are, and understanding that how things are is generally pretty terrible. And yet we call it an illness.

Similarly, there’s an identifiable piece of cognitive dissonance called the Dunning-Krueger effect, which dictates that people who are unskilled at a task have a tendency to vastly overestimate their ability to carry out the task in question. If you’re incompetent, you have no way of knowing the extent of your incompetence. (Or, as Bertrand Russell said, “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”) You can see this every time you walk out the door — look at how people drive!

So, we have cases where delusions are so demonstrably, spectacularly out of touch with reality — the Vince Lis of this world — that we can all agree that they originate from the fact that something has gone very wrong in the brain of the person who experiences them. Whether this occurs as a result of some environmental trigger or does so spontaneously (here’s an account of the latter) doesn’t matter. Either way, we agree that we’re dealing with an illness, and that this illness can and should be treated.

Beyond such cases, though, we have a raft of other situations where delusions are based in prejudice, or overconfidence, or ignorance, or a million other things. We even have delusions that are fundamental to our view of what reality is. (What you see is not exactly what your eyes see, for instance — it’s the information from your eye, augmented by a lot of information from your brain, and sometimes that information, or its interpretation, proves false.) We agree that some of these delusions are less than ideal — we’d have fewer traffic accidents if people who are poor drivers would accept that they are poor drivers — but we don’t characterize them as illnesses.

What’s the difference, though? Intuitively, there’s a fundamental difference between a racist belief and one that God is telling you to save the planet from aliens — but if they’re both grounded in fallacy, how do we make a distinction between them, beyond the fact that one is more extreme than the other?

The difference, I think, is that there’s an element of choice and self-awareness here. Some extreme forms of mental illness are characterized by anosognosia, which is a genuine inability to recognize one’s own condition. It’s something distinct from denial, which is the refusal to recognize one’s own condition. In the latter case, there’s an element of agency — humans are very good at convincing themselves of things, but there’s an awareness, at some fundamental level, that this is what you’re doing.

Racism, I’d argue — even violent, extreme racism — falls into the second category, along with the Dunning-Krueger effect and a million other little delusions that characterize our lives. It’s not an illness; it’s a delusion, one bred by beliefs people like Dylann Roof choose to embrace, and one for which they can be held responsible. This is important, because we’ve also agreed, as a society, that mental illness can be used as a basis for diminished responsibility.

If you took a handful of people and put them on a desert island, some of them might develop skin cancer, or heart disease. They might develop schizophrenia or depression. Would they become racially prejudiced against one another? I submit that this would depend on how much they had to fight each other for resources or encountered other external obstacles. In a land of plenty, they’d probably live happily enough. On an island where there’s only one fishing pole, things might be rather different.

In other words, racism is more circumstantial than anything else. But then, schizophrenia and depression have been proven to be at least somewhat circumstantial — you might be predisposed to them, but their development (or non-development) is often dependent on the environment the person in question inhabits. And, for that matter, the same is true of skin cancer and heart disease — and, really, almost any disease.

It seems to me that this is a key point. Refusing to acknowledge that we have certain social conditions conducive to mass murder (late capitalism, an abundance of guns) and violent racism (disenfranchised minorities, a history of slavery, a culture that has a tendency to act like the Civil War didn’t happen) is a sort of grand social delusion that America really, really needs to address. (As ever, The Onion nailed this idea far better than its more serious counterparts.)

Ultimately, by talking about whether racism is a mental illness, I think we’re talking about semantics, and in doing so we’re ignoring more important issues. If mental illness is the overwhelming causative factor in a crime, let’s by all means talk about it. Such crimes, however, are incredibly rare. Most of the time, the specter of mental illness is invoked for precisely the reason it is being used here: as a way of implying that a case is somehow special, that it couldn’t have been avoided.

In this case, the motivation behind Dylann Roof’s crime is clear for anyone to see, so long as they don’t explicitly choose not to see it. All you need to do is read his manifesto. If we tell ourselves his motivation was illness, we do so to argue that he was a special case, rather than dig into capitalism and racism and gun laws and whatever else in American culture shapes people into mass murderers. Because he wasn’t a special case. He was just an extreme one.

In conclusion, I’ll say this: as someone who both has a mental illness (depression; don’t worry, I’m fine) and knows many other people who do (a whole taxonomy: depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, DID), I find the “mental illness” narrative around the massacre in Charleston to be really harmful. Like the rest of the American public, I don’t know whether Dylann Roof suffered from a mental illness. What I do know is that there are many, many people who are mentally ill and face the world with courage; Roof chose to face it with cowardice and rage. He’s a murderous racist, and that’s all he should be remembered as.