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.

Banned Books: Is U.S. surveillance leading to self censorship?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Banned Books
NSA signs with flowers

NSA headquarters in Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, northeast of Washington D.C.

Banning books is one thing. It’s even more serious to influence what gets written in the first place. Self-censoring by authors was one of the outcomes in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as authors tried to avoid offending anyone. Eventually, books were banned entirely.

But self-censoring couldn’t happen today, right?

In fact, it’s such a serious threat that nearly 30 famous writers just sent a letter to the U.S. Senate urging changes in the way our National Security Administration (NSA) carries out mass surveillance on Americans. The list of top writers includes lots of writers familiar to high school and college students: Don DeLillo, Nikki Giovanni, John Irving, Tony Kushner, and even the writer better known as Lemony Snicket.

In their longer letter, the writers said: “Mass surveillance invades our private thoughts and lives, chilling speech and spreading fear and mistrust throughout a society. Mass surveillance is censorship.” As evidence, the writers cite a 2013 survey by PEN American Center, a branch of PEN International. PEN’s mission is “to protect free expression and to defend writers and journalists who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted or attacked in the course of their professions.”

Writers are very concerned about government surveillance, much more so than the general public. Over a quarter (28%) say they have “curtailed or avoided social media activities.” About one fourth (24%) say they have “deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations.” And, 16% say they have “avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic.”

One writer said he aborted a book project because he feared his research would attract the attention of surveillance authorities. The topic was “civil defense preparedness during the Cold War.”

Here’s what he said, quoted from the PEN report: “… as a result of recent articles about the NSA, I decided to put the idea aside because, after all, what would be the perception if I Googled ‘nuclear blast,’ ‘bomb shelters,’ ‘radiation’, ‘secret plans,’ ‘weaponry,’ and so on? And are librarians required to report requests for materials about fallout and national emergencies and so on? I don’t know.”

Is self-censoring a price we should be willing to pay if it means more security? Over a third of Americans (36%) in my national surveys agreed with the statement: “I am willing to give up any freedom the government asks me to give up in order to protect this country’s safety.” Half of all Americans disagree, with 14% in the undecided category.

Are you willing to give up any freedom the government asks you if it means better safety and security?

Do you know of any authors who are self-censoring?

Are the concerns expressed in the PEN report overblown or justified?

Get Out the Vote: How much voter impersonation is there?

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Get Out the Vote

Tip O’Neill in his prime.

NOTE FROM DR. WAYNE BAKER—Columnist Terry Gallagher has been exploring Americans’ voter apathy and challenges to raising the level of participation.

In Tip O’Neill’s autobiography, Man of the House, he used the phrase “Chinese hat trick” to describe a form of voting fraud.

On election day, a ward boss would hire Chinese men and have them vote repeatedly under different names. “Each time they came to the polls, however, they would be wearing a different hat, the idea being that to Caucasians, all Chinese people looked alike,” according to O’Neill.

But after winning a close race for re-election to the Massachusetts house, O’Neill introduced legislation to punish that kind of malarkey.

“I didn’t like people stealing elections–and I especially didn’t like people stealing them from me!” he wrote. “The bill passed easily, and that particular brand of corruption virtually disappeared from Massachusetts.”

Yesterday’s post looked at the growing political strategy called “voter suppression,” like requiring potential voters to show a photo ID, to reduce turnout among those who are likely to oppose your candidate. The common rationale is to prevent the kind of fraud O’Neill saw in Boston back in the day.

But how common is that really, where someone shows up at the polls pretending to be someone else?

Not very, according to an analysis reported in the Washington Post last week.

Loyola University Law School Prof. Justin Levitt looked at more a billion votes cast in elections across the country from 2000 through 2014, and found only 31 credible cases of voter impersonation.

“Election fraud happens,” Levitt wrote, including ballot-box stuffing by officials in on the scam. But those methods are not going to be stopped by requiring photo IDs.

When turnout is so low already, why would we make it more difficult to vote?

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS THIS SUMMER: Terry Gallagher has written about a wide range of topics. You can read more than 100 of his past columns by clicking on this link. Email us at [email protected] with suggestions for Terry. And Please, we always invite you to comment (below) or to share this column on Facebook (use the blue-“f” icons).

Space: Next stop, Mars?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Space
Mars image from NASA 2013

Image of Mars from NASA in 2013.

Going to the earth’s moon is so, well … yester-century. Private companies like SpaceX have their launch sights set on the Red Planet. In fact, SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s goal is to establish a permanent colony on Mars.

Should Mars be NASA’s focus, too?

Here’s what NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. says in the agency’s 2014 Strategic Plan: “Our long-term goal is to send humans to Mars. Over the next two decades, we will develop and demonstrate the technologies and capabilities needed to send humans to explore the red planet and safely return them to Earth. One of the steps toward this goal is a proposed mission to find, capture, redirect a near-Earth asteroid safely into the Earth-Moon system, and then send astronauts to explore it. This mission will allow us to further develop new technologies and test mechanisms and techniques for human operations in deep space, as well as help us understand potential future threats to human populations posed by asteroids.”

But, how much public support is there for a mission to Mars?

Just over a third of Americans (36%) agree that the goals of the space program should include manned flight to Mars, according to a 2012 poll by Rasmussen Reports. Slightly more disagree (38%). But many Americans (27%) say they aren’t sure. The price tag for a Mars program could be $6 billion to as much as $500 billion, according to some estimates.

Is the Mars mission just flight of fancy?

Should NASA set its sights on the Red Planet?

Should tax payers fund a Mars program?

Divided America: Is Edward Snowden hero or traitor?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Divided America

Edward SnowdenWhat was your reaction when you first learned about National Security Agency (NSA) warrant-less surveillance of Americans? Did you feel the program was justified in the name of national security? Or, were you outraged by the invasion of privacy and the trampling of individual freedom?

The tradeoff of freedom and security is a theme that has endured since the nation’s founding. And, it’s a tradeoff that can’t be resolved, only managed, with the pendulum swinging back and forth between  security and freedom.

A good litmus test to gauge your feelings about these values is the way you responded to Edward Snowden’s release of a wide range of NSA secret documents as he fled around the world, finally landing in Russia. If you’re among those who view Snowden as a traitor, then you are likely to place national security over individual freedom. If you’re among those who see him as a hero, then the opposite is likely to be true. (The extreme length of the Wikipedia page about Snowden attests to the vigorous partisans on both sides—some jeering and some cheering.)

Back in the era of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin had a firm opinion about the tradeoff: “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

A few years after 9/11, almost half of Arab Americans (47 percent) and a majority of the general population (55 percent) in the Detroit region said they were willing to trade freedom for more security from terrorism. My team and I wrote about this in our book, Citizenship and Crisis: Arab Detroit After 9/11.

Nationwide, how do Americans feel about the tradeoff? This is one of the issues I explored in my national surveys, and the results reveal a clear division of opinion. Over a third (35%) of Americans say they are willing to give up any freedom the government asks them to give up in order to protect the country’s safety.

But just over half (51%) disagree. They aren’t willing to give up any freedom the government asks them to give up for the sake of more security. Only 14% are neutral on the issue.

Are you willing to trade freedom for security?

What is your reaction to the government’s once-secret surveillance program?

Do you consider Edward Snowden to be a traitor—or a patriot?

Contraceptive Mandate: Who has the power?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Contraceptive Mandate

The contraceptive mandate brings together so many issues, each of which can be controversial by itself: sex, reproduction, gender, religion, federalism, and more.

Hobby Lobby store at night

What do the employees want? Their preferences aren’t at issue in this case. The chain’s owners and the high court hold the power.

One issue that hasn’t received enough attention is power. Who has the power? Who doesn’t?

This week, we’ve covered various facets of the cases before the U.S. Supreme Court concerning religious objections, by corporate owners, to the contraceptive mandate. These include the concept of corporations as persons, women’s rights versus religious rights, and differences in public opinion about the issues from the beginning of the month to just this week.

Today, we consider the issue of power. By power, my focus isn’t the power of the high court to decide these matters. It’s the age-old issue of the power of business owners versus employees. Let’s put aside the issue of religious principles. I know that’s at the heart of the matter, but let’s hold it in order to consider the issue of power.

Employees have very little power vis-à-vis the power of the business owners. Business owners make decisions and impose them on their many employees. Employees don’t have a say.

I would love to see results from an opinion poll of the employees of Hobby Lobby. What are their feelings about the contraceptive mandate? Do they want no-cost access to all contraceptive technologies, including the morning-after pill and IUD? Do they have religious objections? Presumably, some do and some don’t. Each employee has his or her own moral and religious principles that come into play when making decisions about conception and contraceptives.

But the high court will make a decision that sweeps over all employees, one way or the other. This decision might favor the will of corporate owners, or it may not—either way, the employees are voiceless.

Should the employees have a say?

Should their voices be taken into consideration?

Or, does the power reside with the corporate owners?

Contraceptive Mandate: Survey says?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Contraceptive Mandate

US Supreme Court Building Washington DC Wikimedia CommonsThe U.S. Supreme Court began hearings yesterday on the request to opt out of the contraceptive mandate on the basis of religious principles. Churches and religious organization can opt out, but the issue in front of the court concerns for-profit corporations whose owners object on religious grounds. The Supreme Court may not pay much attention to public opinion, but what do Americans have to say about this issue?

The latest results come from a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted just before the high court hearing. Here’s the question:

“Under the new health care law, health insurance plans are required to cover preventive health services, including prescription birth control. Religious organizations are exempt from the requirement that their health plans cover prescription birth control. Do you think other employers who object to birth control and other contraceptives on religious grounds should or should not be exempt from the requirement that their health plans cover prescription birth control?”

How would you answer it?

A majority of Americans (53%) answered that the employers in question should not be exempt from covering birth control in their employee insurance plans. About four of ten (41%) disagree, saying that employers like Hobby Lobby (one of the cases before the court) should be exempt on religious grounds. Only 6% say they are not sure.

Compared to older Americans, young adults (ages 18–34) are much more likely to say that employers shouldn’t be able to opt out on the basis of religious objections. This is yet another way that the values and attitudes of Millennials are distinctive and different from older Americans—differences that we discussed recently on OurValues.org.

How would you answer the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll?

Have your opinions about the contraceptive mandate changed or stayed the same over time?