Is Racism a Mental Illness? #CharlestonShooting

Is Racism a Mental Illness? #CharlestonShooting June 18, 2015

I had someone comment on a Facebook post about the Charleston shooting, suggesting that mental illness must be involved.

I responded in a number of ways, including asking whether all the people in lynch mobs in the south some decades ago were mentally ill.

On the one hand, to blame mental illness can be a reprehensible attempt at blame-shifting. Jesus taught that murder is simply the ultimate outwards expression of anger and hatred. When we foster cultures or subcultures of hatred, in which some human beings are demonized and dehumanized, we are laying the groundwork for murder. And we share in the guilt, even if we ourselves did not pull a trigger.

On the other hand, one can perhaps construe the suggestion as meaning that racism is itself a mental illness. The question of what “sanity” is and how it is defined is an important one. Isn’t racism simply an individual or societal delusion? Should we begin to diagnose it and treat it in the same way we might deal with other psychological conditions that could lead someone to harm themselves and others?

What do readers of this blog think? Is blaming mental illness for a shooting like this an attempt to shift the blame away from racism? Or is it in fact an accurate diagnosis of what racism is?

There is much more coverage of this event around, for those who may be interested. CNN has video from the Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church at which Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people, ABC has details about his apprehension and his white supremacist views, and other Patheos bloggers such as Crystal St. Marie Lewis, Frank SchaefferChristian Piatt, Fred Clark, and Ben Corey have reflections.


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  • Gary

    “And we share in the guilt, even if we ourselves did not pull a trigger.”…
    Fox News makes a big deal about gun control and Obama, expressing we need to do something.

    Simple, hold the father guilty as an accessory to murder, for negligently providing a .45 caliber handgun to his 21 year old son, as a birthday present. A .45 caliber handgun (semiautomatic, I don’t know any other kind), is illegal for hunting. It serves only one purpose, to kill people, in a very efficient manner. Let the sins of the son, fall on the father. Execute both of the suckers! In a speedy manner!

    • The shooter deserves life (or at least thirty years’) imprisonment. For the father, I’m sure there’s some law on the books about straw purchases that could be used against him.

    • Evergreen

      Handguns like a .45 are legal for hunting in many states.

      Regulation changes allow hunters to take more handguns into the woodsRestrictions on caliber, barrel length are no more in North Carolina

      Do you really think reprisals on relatives are appropriate? That kind of puts you in Lidace territory.

      • Gary

        A .45 caliber pistol round would only be used to hunt varmint. And any reasonable hunter is pretty much an idiot, and a little crazy (loves to see pain and suffering) to use such a round to kill varmint. As I said before, you don’t give a .45 caliber semi automatic pistol to your 21 year old son to hunt. That eliminates any reasonable argument to justify a father giving a son such a weapon, other than to kill people. If you disagree with that, you are an idiot yourself. And giving a handgun to a son is a convenient way to get around the handgun restrictions of a waiting period and a background check. Thus the father is guilty of being an accomplice to the crime. Especially since it is obvious the father knew better than anyone what the background of the son was. Clearly your logic is Republican, NRA logic. I know both well, since I was once a Republican, and an NRA member, and I am a gun owner, and a past hunter. But the current NRA are clearly brain dead, like yourself. And the wiki article proves it. Enjoy your depravity.

        • Evergreen

          When you don’t have facts on your side, rant on like a mad man.

          • Gary

            The facts speak for themselves. I am sad to see crazy people on Fox complain about Obama’s comments that this doesn’t happen in other modern industrial countries, with such frequency. Fox conveniently cut Obama’s comments “with such frequency”, to try and make the point that, gee, this happens in Norway, England, New Zealand, and France. Except for every one instance in those countries, with stricter gun controls, there are MANY instances here. Seems like every month we have one. So, since you are obviously a NRA supporter, you now also have blood on your hands. What do you recommend to solve the problem? Arm every church member? With that kind of logic, you prove my case. You are crazy.

          • Evergreen

            You were factually wrong about a .45 being used for hunting. You were morally wrong about reprisals against relatives.

            How do you get from being wrong about that to Faux Gnus and the big O?

            Crazy? You’re projecting.

          • Gary

            I don’t hear any recommendations. I’m waiting.

          • Evergreen

            Get your facts straight. How’s that? You backtracked from saying a .45 isn’t used for hunting, to saying it’s used only for varmints. Did you mean those whitetail varmints?

            “I hunt whitetail deer with a Glock G21 chambered in .45 ACP…”

          • Gary

            I didn’t back track on anything. Only idiots hunt with a .45 caliber pistol. In California, it is illegal to hunt deer with a pistol. A .45 caliber semi automatic round is not appropriate to hunt. Of course, in some cracker states, you can probably do anything with a gun. Thus, we need stricter FEDERAL gun laws. Letting each state do what they want is part of the problem. I am still waiting for your recommendations.

          • Evergreen

            Ok, now you’ve back-tracked to an opinion that a .45 not being a good caliber to hunt with. Christ, you could here the same thing argued at an NRA rally.

            > in some cracker states

            I see, you’re a racist. Seems my Lidace illustration of your morality was correct.

          • Gary

            I see this conversation is going no where. Although I have to admit that I was amused at some of the comments provided by you NRA magazine, American Handgunner. When I was an NRA member, they just had their standard magazine, and American Hunter, which I got. I remember the slow evolution from hunter safety, and real hunter stories, to political activism and paranoia about taking all people’s guns away. Then they started attracting very strange people. Like ones hunting with a .45 caliber semi automatic pistol. In the old days, you people that do that, would indeed be viewed as crazy by real hunters. Enjoyed one of the commenters:

            “Hunting with a .45 auto.I have worn my S&W M&P .45 acp with 4.5 inch barrel and Hornandy Critical Defense 45 auto 185 grain FTX ammo in my 10 round mag with 2 more mags on my hip.I felt very secure at night walking on the beach against any 2 legged Humans and any coyote or wild dog or other kind of beastie in the coyote,big dog catergory.I wouldn’t shoot any deers or Bambi and Smokey the Bear would get mad at me for not using a more powerful humane load.And if I encounter a Bear I’m just going to walk away and if comes after me maybe some loud into the ground shots.I would not shoot the Bear because he might just get mad and crazy and a injured Bear isn’t good.If he tried to grab a loved one.I would empty the mag into his big head and hope that would stop him.I’m not into shooting Bears and Deer.If there cool I’m cool.”

            Thanks again for the article.
            I’d invite him over for a BBQ, if I myself was crazy.
            Last comment for me.

          • Evergreen

            A conversation with a racist like you probably won’t go anywhere. But hey, now you’ve finally backpedaled into the opinion that a .45 not being good enough for bear. Later, gator.

          • Tony Prost

            Why do you call Gary a racist?

          • Evergreen

            Cracker, sometimes white cracker or cracka, is a derogatory term for white people…an offensive racial slur used to demean Caucasians.

    • Straw Man

      “A .45… serves only one purpose–to kill people…”

      Yep. That’s why cops carry them, for example: to kill people. When we finished our training they issued us one and said, “This is for killing people, y’heah? So go out and kill some people with it.”

      Strangely, there are 1 or 2 cops in my acquaintance who have not killed anyone with their .45, and I ask them all the time, “What the #%^%# do you think that thing is FOR?”

      • Gary

        Yes sir, it must be just for show, then. Just issue one duty bullet, then, placed in the shirt pocket, like Barnie Fife. If you know cops, you also know they are not trained to shoot someone in the arm or leg. Critical mass body shot. I think you missed the point. My assumption is that any/every cop undergoes a background check before he is issued a gun. Standards should be universal, in all states, per a federal law. Unfortunately, it is state by state, which means some background checks are good. And some background checks, like in Mayberry RFD, are probably not very good. If they applied tough background checks to everyone, including police, it would be an improvement. I suppose you have some recommendations?

  • Is blaming mental illness for a shooting like this an attempt to shift the blame away from racism?

    I would guess that came from someone who finds it impossible to believe that someone would shoot out of racist hatred.

    I don’t share that disbelief. I’ve come across some Southerners with very strong feelings and full of resentment about being on the losing side of the civil war. Anger still runs very deep among some of them.

  • 1. No, racism is not a mental illness. The participants of lynch mobs were not mentally ill, just desiring of vigilante justice.
    2. Mental illness may or may not be responsible for this shooting. I don’t know. We’ll find out later.
    3. I don’t think speakers should be considered responsible for the indirect consequences of their speech, even if real. That would inevitably have chilling effects on discourse. For all we know, the shooter may have been motivated by anti-racist and anti-white writing (like James’s) leading him to view the white race as under attack.

    “Isn’t racism simply an individual or societal delusion?”
    -Depends on how it’s defined. I don’t think it’s a delusion; I think it’s a response to one’s environment meant to enforce status. Among the intellectual elite in America, anti-White racism is probably somewhat more common than anti-Black, though both are rare. Jews have anti-WASPism (to defend their high positions from attack), Blacks have anti-Koreanism (to protect their sensibilities from attack by others’ visible superiority), and Whites have anti-Hispanicism (to protect their jobs from replacement) and anti-Blackism (to protect their homes and persons from crime). In the olde days of the 1950s, anti-Blackism and the minimum wage went hand-in hand, as well as labor unionism among the Irish and Chinese Exclusion.
    “Should we begin to diagnose it and treat it in the same way we
    might deal with other psychological conditions that could lead someone
    to harm themselves and others?”
    -Lee Harvey Oswald was a Castro supporter. Should we psychoanalyze Castro supporters now? I always think institutional psychoanalysis is a desperate response to criticism. Stalin used it in the U.S.S.R. when he didn’t have any other good ways to rebut critics.

    • Nick G

      Shorter Enopoletus Harding:
      Quick! Find something to distract people from the obvious fact that this was a terrorist attack by a white supremacist!

      • It does seem that’s the case, and I’m not trying to distract anyone from it.

    • “vigilante justice” –> vigilant injustice

      Fixed it for you…

    • Okay, mental illness definitely not responsible for the shooting. But my speculation (“the shooter may have been motivated by anti-racist and anti-white
      writing (like James’s) leading him to view the white race as under
      attack”) turned out to be exactly on target.

  • BTW, according to the below table:
    27% of lynching victims were White. According to Slate Star Codex, capital sentencing is one of the few areas in the criminal justice system where racism remains a problem even unto this day (though the writer didn’t specify numbers).
    Today, there are more Black than White prisoners in U.S. State&Federal prisons combined:
    Assume 20% of the potentially lynchable population was Black (a reasonable estimate for the South). Given this estimate, the average Black person would have had to be 11 times or so as likely to be lynched as the average White. Today, the discrepancy in homicide perpetration rates is something like 6 times. So racism in the Jim Crow South likely doubled the probability a typical Black person would be lynched.

  • BTW, the best article on mental illness is this one:

  • Worthless Beast

    People like me who are genuinely a bit mad know something that a lot of people and the media do not: that Madness is not the same as Evil. Having a bit of chemical imbalance in the brain will not make you into a racist bastard. Being a racist bastard makes you a racist bastard.

    • ccws

      As a lifelong depression sufferer, I concur. I cringe when people blame “mental illness” as if that general label explains everything.

      That having been said…racist bastards are a special breed of sick puppies…

  • Michael Wilson

    I don’t think racism is a mental disorder. One might be taught to believe it, our world being constructed from what we think we know. However the more ones racism is confounded by experience the more one would have to recoil into delusion to preserve the belief. Extreme hatred and aggression seem a bit pathological. I mean eithier this guy is very stupid or simply didn’t care to be caught. Perhaps he dreamed of a martyrdom by cop but was failed in the moment of testing.

    At any rate, by all accounts this a poor, uneducated young man.There are a lot of those. Most don’t go this route. Compare him with through with the wealthy white murders of the weather underground. I doubt he had co-conspirators.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if he had emotional disorders, maybe even schizophrenia Of some sort. His friends said he wanted to start a race war. Charles Manson was alleged to have had the same motivation. Why? probably because for some irrational reason he hated black people ( I guess he could be indifferent and just had thought killing blacks woukd make him rich and desirable, but that would be an even greater level of lunacy!) He could well be calculating and quite foolish.

    • charlesburchfield

      he was invisible & now he isn’t.

      • Ricardo Ali Fernandez

        There is some truth to what you say. To some degree he wanted to be validated and he went into behavior that is antisocial and noted as chronic mental illness. Had he been able to validate himself before the crime perhaps he would have avoided committing crimes. Society has its boundaries. He operated outside those boundaries and he needs to be dealt with swiftly.

        • charlesburchfield

          ‘dealt w swiftly’? w respect what do you suggest?
          I was thinking of serial killers & cult leaders like charles manson, jim jones when I posted abt the invisibe becomming visible to the whole would thru a hidious act of violence perpetrated on innocent victims.
          And then there’s The guy who shot john lennon, & in my own back yard kip kinkle who murdered his parents w the guns they gave him for presents cuz, you know,
          he always felt one down in a very social elete fam & they wanted to give him a reason to feel like he had some power, then he drove to thursten high school and shot & killed some classmates. Kip is serving a life sentence & there is reason to believe he is schitzo affective i’ve heard. Same sad scenario w the sandy hook binge murderer (he had aspergers?) Mom, who gave her son the guns as a present wound up being murdered first bf son showed up at school w guns blazing. Then there is the columbine massacre…

  • charlesburchfield

    Troll games alert! (EVERGREEN) Winds u up/puts u down. Lots of fun!

  • Ricardo Ali Fernandez

    Of course racism is a mental illness. Criminal activity is a mental illness. That doesn’t mean criminals are not held responsible and accountable. Boundaries have to be drawn somewhere. We were created within a boundary. Yes, for criminal activity the judge has to figure out the circumstances. Fine. Call that relativism if you want. I don’t. I call it healthy boundaries. When a crime like this is committed mental illness or not it is outside of acceptable behavior and needs to be dealt with as such. Dealt with in a manner that prevents serial crimes. Dealt with in a manner that society does not have to feed, cloth and shelter the criminal. Once the criminal is proven guilty, mental illness or not, the criminal needs to be dealt with. This idealism of “he who is without sin cast the first stone” is merely a ploy to put us all in a double bind like in a state of tonic immobility. In this case the punishment needs to fit the crime. Make it happen.

    • Michael Wilson

      Criminal activity can be very rational, sometimes moral. Mafiosos aren’t crazy, they just feel that crime is a legitimate way to support their loved ones.

    • Evergreen

      Is everybody, by your definition, mentally ill?

      Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist

  • Gary

    I stand corrected. I must admit my mistake, when I am wrong. It is legal in many states to hunt with a semiautomatic caliber handgun. However, after a little research, I have found that this just points out the insidious effect the NRA has had on Fish and Game hunting regulations in states, with the specific purpose of advancing their crazy “anything is allowed” mentality. Not to advance hunting. But to advance handgun use, armor piercing bullets, silencers, hunting with assault rifles, etc.

    Background on my comments. It use to be that the NRA only had one magazine. American Rifleman. They expanded, to include American Hunter. In those days, they advocated gun safety, and common sense hunting regulations. In those days, a real Hunter would think it was stupid to hunt with a semiautomatic pistol. Now the NRA has Handgunner, with people reading it that appear to be boarderline psychotics. The NRA moved to political activism, and got their members into the state fish and game organizations, to specifically change rules, to allow every hair-brained crazy idea in hunting. Not to advance hunting, but to advance the idea that you go into the woods to play war games. It fits in with the survivalist, militia, anti-government movement. I have to say I am publically ashamed to say that I was a member of the NRA. The one item that dropped my jaw was this

    Where the NRA supported the advocacy of using silencers in hunting in Florida, and 10 other states. There are no words to justify this.

    No wonder people now take handguns, and think they are Gods.

    It use to be, that only criminals would get and use silencers, illegally. Now I see the NRA advocates everyone to have access to silencers. How about an 18 year old high school student? The NRA has lost any respect it use to have. They are flat out crazy.

    • Evergreen

      Doubling down on your wrongness? Hunting with assault rifles?

      “An assault rifle is a selective fire rifle…”

      Who hunts with a rifle that can be selected to either fully automatic fire or burst fire? If it does happen, it is a rare event. Remember, assault rifles (selective fire) are already highly regulated and rare in the US.

      Fully automatic guns in the US are highly regulated, and regulation works

      • Gary

        An assault rifle is a kind of gun, as in, an AR-15 semiautomatic, that you boys like to play with, in play-war games in the woods, by blowing away squirrels, or anything else that moves. When the AR-15 came out for commercial sale, they were followed immediately by mail-order kits to convert them to fully automatic, thus bypassing the laws. And there were plenty of faux-militia types to buy them.
        By the way, I find you rather annoying, so I won’t respond to you anymore, with all due respect.

        • Evergreen

          An assault rifle is select fire, like an M-16. An AR-15 is no select fire. (And no, I don’t own either. )

          And if you convert an AR-15 to fully-automatic, its a good way to end up in prison.

          Even if your rifle’s sear (a trigger part) wears and accidentally fires fully-automatic for a short burst until it jams, you can end up in prison.

          “United States v. Olofson, 563 F.3d 652 (2009)…When his AR-15 broke while being used and had a internal malfunction and burst fired 3-4 rounds then jammed.”

          By the way, I find your misrepresentations and racism annoying, so if you keep that stuff up, I’ll keep responding.

  • Tony Prost

    In this photo, he looks like that kid in Clockwork Orange.

    • Gary

      This is disturbingly true.

  • Gary

    I like my misrepresentations. I am a gun owner who wants more restrictive gun law.

  • Vegangypsie

    Either way, it must be consistent. It can’t become a mental illness only as an excuse after murder has been committed. Either we put it in the DSM, which means a lot of people are in need of some level of treatment right now, before it happens again, or leave the mentally ill out of the conversation, seeing as actual, diagnosed, mentally ill folk are far more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence on the whole, and do not need additional scapegoating and stigma piled on them.

    Some people are saying it is not a mental illness because it is taught. Well, some mental illnesses are acquired, for example, PTSD. At the end of the day, what we decide to treat as a mental illness is up to us as a society. I don’t know whether classifying racism as such would be beneficial, but nothing else we have tried has worked, so — maybe? But only as long as we are consistent and actually start studying how to treat it, rather than simply excusing it.

  • BTW, the mass shooting is “the language of the unheard”, to use some of James’s terminology.

    This is meant as a (bitter) joke.