Race in America: Is racism a form of “mental illness”?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Race in America
Al Sharpton with Esaw Garner

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.—Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton with Esaw Garner, the widow of Eric Garner, at a protest in the Staten Island neighborhood where Eric Garner died after a choke hold by a police officer. (Photo by Thomas Good is provided for public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

The grand jury decision to not indict the New York City white police officer whose choke-hold resulted in the death of an unarmed black man sparked outrage by liberals and conservatives alike—especially as it followed the earlier grand jury decision to not indict the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

Together, these cases raise once again the troubling, persistent questions of race, race relations, and racism in America.

One prevailing answer to those questions: Racism is a form of mental illness. But, is it?

We have a tendency to think of racism this way, observes sociologist James M. Thomas in a recent issue of the journal Contexts. Thomas cites celebrities Paula Deen and Mel Gibson as examples of those “who have pledged publicly to seek treatment for their racism—reflecting a growing tendency to frame racist acts as a mental health issue.” Thomas’ analysis shows that framing of racism as mental illness is not confined to a few high-profile cases, but a widespread phenomenon.

The view of racism as mental illness is reinforced by the strength of the value of individualism in American society. It locates the source of the problem in the individual. Racism is seen as individual disease that can be treated with “individual treatment protocols” like psychological or drug therapies.

The problem with this framing, says Thomas, is that it focuses on the “lone racist” and underplays the larger cultural and structural causes of racism and its perpetuation. It focuses on the symptom rather than the underlying cause.

Sociologist Claude Fischer commented at length about Thomas’ argument; he pointed out several of the “institutional and structural features of society that reinforce ethnic and racial inequities.” These features include: “the way school systems are structured, funded and staffed; persisting neighborhood segregation; the several-generational consequences of low wealth accumulation and educational attainment; political districting that effectively weakens minority votes; and policing practices that have the consequence of disproportionate punishment.”

Do you think racism is—or isn’t—a form of mental illness?

What do you see as the underlying causes of racism in America?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons and asking friends to read this series with you. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Series NavigationRace in America: A black-white divide in confidence in the police >>


  1. Rambling Rob says

    The underlying cause of Racism is the continuing battle of a new generation facing the same problems their parents did when they fought for civil rights. There are those who have accepted the limited advances but we now have new generations seeking more so called “Freedoms” and “Rights. One of our constitutional rights is free speech and the right to protest. Our biggest addition to the conflict is social media and the globalization of information. The information presented is not always clear and precise, each media has different information. Where does the correct information come from? We have no national news media but PBS, but it takes time to develop the information after the social media has made its opinion known. We need to be more patient in our reactions until all the facts are in.