Is Racism a Psychopathology?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Sander Gilman


In the third and final CMBC lunch talk of the 2013 fall semester, Dr. Sander Gilman (Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, Emory) treated participants to an engaging presentation on the interconnected history of racism and mental illness in Europe and America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The topic of the talk grew out of a CMBC-sponsored undergraduate course and graduate seminar offered by Dr. Gilman last fall, titled “Race, Brain, and Psychoanalysis.”

Gilman opened by citing a 2012 study conducted by an interdisciplinary team of scientists at Oxford. Based on clinical experiments, they reported that white subjects who were given doses of the beta-blocker drug Propranolol showed reduced indicators of implicit racial bias. The authors of the paper wrote that their research “raises the tantalizing possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs.” Time Magazine soon thereafter ran a headline story with the title “Is Racism Becoming a Mental Illness?” Dismissing these claims as unscientific, Gilman instead posed a different set of questions: at what point, historically, does racism come to be classified as a form of mental illness? Why? And what are the implications of such a “diagnosis”?

The strange marriage of racism and mental illness traces back to the development of the so-called “science of man” in nineteenth century Europe. At this time, notably in Germany, the nascent discipline of psychiatry was attempting to win status as a legitimate science. Psychologists turned their attention to the issue of race and sought to clarify the connection between race and morals on the one hand, and mental illness on the other. Across the ocean, the assumption in America was that African Americans’ desire to escape the bondage of slavery was symptomatic of an underlying insanity. In Europe, by contrast, the intellectual discussion about race and mental illness concerned the population of European Jews, who, unlike African American slaves, were able to participate in public intellectual life. The pressing question facing European scientists had to do with the extremely high rates of mental illness among Jews. Scholars debated whether it was due to inbreeding or a consequence of domestication and self-isolation. More interesting, however, is the fact that even Jewish scholars accepted the basic supposition that Jews displayed high rates of insanity. Indeed, some concluded that such illness could only be explained as the result of 2,000 years of persecution. The main point about this period of history, then, is that minority groups such as European Jews and African American slaves were thought to suffer from a universal form of mental illness, and this theory was now supported by a distinctly “scientific” diagnosis.

Then a major shift occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century as scholars began to focus on the oppressor. If mental illness among Jews was indeed caused by a long history of persecution, then what explains racism itself? The question was especially relevant to Jewish thinkers who were trying to understand the factors that might prompt Jews to leave Europe and found their own Jewish state. Thus, in a proto-Zionist pamphlet written in 1882 and titled “Auto-Emancipation,” the Russian Jewish physician Leon Pinsker coined the term “Judeophobia” to designate the mental illness not of the oppressed minority, but of the persecutor. Pinsker claimed that Judeophobia was not unique to any one race, but was instead the common inheritance of all peoples who had ever interacted with the Jews—in other words, nearly everyone. The term was presented as a disease, a psychic aberration that was hereditary and incurable. This new model of race and mental illness therefore inverted the prevailing view: it was no longer the victim, but the racist who was crazy.

Whereas the apparent madness of the Jews and African Americans was based on their status as races or biological entities, the larger global population of Judeophobes was not based in biology. To classify the madness of this diverse collective entity, psychologists at the end of the nineteenth century invented the notion of the “crowd.” A parallel was thereby established between race and the (German) crowd. In the early part of the twentieth century, Freud adopted the idea of the crowd into his theory of group psychology and claimed that racism was a prime example of such crowd madness. Moreover, he argued that it was universal and fuelled by the tendency of the crowd to see itself as biologically different from other crowds. The idea of racism—and anti-Semitism, in particular—as a form of psychopathology, became a common view by the 1920’s and 30’s.

But the pendulum swung back yet again as scholars in central Europe (many of whom were Jewish) expressed renewed interest in the status of the victim. Scientists speculated that, as a consequence of racial discrimination, there must be a residual aspect of self-hatred among the oppressed. Not only was racism itself a sign of psychopathology, but the response to racism also came to be viewed as a form of mental illness. Anna Freud wrote about the tendency of the victim to identify with the aggressor. For example, in studying Jewish children who had escaped to America after World War II, she noticed that when they played the game of “Nazis and Jews”—the German equivalent of “Cowboys and Indians”—all the Jewish kids wanted to be Nazis. This tendency, scholars argued, pointed to underlying psychological damage.

To summarize the story to this point: we started with the notion that certain oppressed, biological minorities are by definition mad; this hypothesis then proceeded to the idea that the racist perpetrators were the ones who are mentally ill; and finally ended up with the suggestion that the perpetrators’ own psychopathology (i.e. racism) is in fact the cause of the victim’s madness.

Meanwhile in the United States, the debate about these questions became a central issue. Social psychologists, in particular, were among the first to pick up the notion of the victim’s self-hatred as the result of exposure to negative race patterns. Two leading figures in this regard were the American Jewish researchers Eugene and Ruth Horowitz, whose work on black racial identity was adopted by the African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940’s and early 50’s. The Clarks are perhaps most famous for their “doll studies,” in which children were presented with plastic diaper-clad dolls identical in appearance except for color. The researchers were interested in who selected what color doll and found that black children in segregated schools in the south consistently chose white dolls. The researchers concluded from these experiments that prejudice and segregation cause black children to develop a universal sense of inferiority and self-hatred.

Gilman noted that while the doll studies are problematic in a number of respects, the important point about this line of psychological research is that it moved the discussion in the United States from looking at the politics of prejudice to thepsychology of prejudice—what Gilman referred to as the “medicalization of prejudice.” The movement initiated by the Clarks had several important ramifications. On the one hand, the movement played a positive role in the push to end segregation. On the other hand, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations invariably began to make legal arguments via the doll studies by invoking the universal psychological damage caused by segregation and racism. Such damage, for instance, was behind the reasoning in the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision. In addition, by focusing on the mental injury suffered by the victim, the madness of the perpetrator was forgotten. In short, as psychological evidence was introduced as the primary means to influence jurisprudence in America, the victory of ending segregation came at the cost of defining all African American children raised under segregation as psychologically damaged.

With his closing remarks, Gilman mentioned a powerful counterargument to the “racism as mental illness” theory, first advanced by the political theorist Hannah Arendt in the 1950’s. Arendt made the simple claim that racists are actually normal people—to be sure, they are bad people, but normal people nonetheless. In agreement with this view, Gilman argued that the medicalization of social phenomena and the intense focus on the damage of the victim is unhelpful because it tacitly exculpates the racists themselves.

During a stimulating discussion following the talk, Gilman went on to highlight the dangers inherent in the claim that victims of racism suffer from universal mental illness. First, the claim is too general; it defines ab initio all members of a group as damaged in exactly the same way, when in reality not all people suffer from psychopathology. Second, the African American researchers who conducted the experiments present an obvious exception to their own rule of universal damage. Lastly, with respect to the doll studies, the theory cannot explain those white children who chose black dolls. In the end, Gilman made a forceful case against psychologically based arguments against racism that invoke the notion of universal damage, for if everyone is “damaged,” then it ceases to be a useful category.

About Brett Maiden

Brett is a doctoral candidate in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion specializing in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. His dissertation, “Cognitive Aspects of Ancient Israelite Religion,” utilizes tools from the cognitive and brain sciences to explore how pan-cultural proclivities shaped local expression of religion, art, and culture in ancient Israel. Brett earned a Bachelor’s in Religious Studies and Classics from the University of Arizona and a Master’s in biblical languages from Yale. At Emory, he is an affiliate of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture and has served as a fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry.
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