The public, the press, and academic theorists have long linked racism and insanity — probably erroneously, according to sociologist James Thomas.
By Noah Berlatsky
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Pacific Standard)
Donald Trump has called Mexicans “criminals” and “rapists” and has proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States. But does that make him psychologically ill? Media outlets have been suggesting that’s the case since at least last spring: “Donald Trump’s Crazy Ideas About Immigration Just Got Crazier,” reads one Washington Post headline from August; “Too Sick to Lead: The Lethal Personality of Donald Trump,” the Huffington Post wrote in June; “Trump Goes on Insane Racist Rant Against American Born Trump U Case Judge,” a Politics USA headline declared in May.
But this connection is erroneous, according to researchers — there’s little evidence of a link between racial bias and psychological illness. Nevertheless, the conflation of insanity and racism is long-standing, as cultural historian Sander Gilman and sociologist James Thomas document in their new book Are Racists Crazy?: How Prejudice, Racism, and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity. In the 1950s, intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno linked fascism to a warped “authoritarian personality”; during and after the war, thinkers like psychiatrist Richard Brickner speculated that facets of the German national character led to violence. More recently, the press widely covered a 2013 Oxford University study that suggested that beta-blocker drugs could “combat” racism.
Gilman and Thomas reject these long-standing assertions that racism is an illness infecting others: Instead, they point out that racism is a normal phenomenon requiring serious legal, social, and cultural change. Framing hatred as a largely individual and medical issue, rather than a systemic malady, moreover, makes it more easy to dismiss, the researchers write. So what kind of harm are media outlets doing by calling Trump crazy? I spoke to Thomas, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, by email in mid-September. We talked about the history of the link between racism and insanity, the 2016 election, and why press coverage of Trump isn’t an aberration at all.
Many people have called Donald Trump “crazy” or “deranged” for making racist statements. What’s the problem, in your view, with suggesting that Trump is crazy for acting like a racist?
First and foremost, such a suggestion takes racism, a daily, patterned activity with a distinct and lengthy history of practice in every single social institution we have, and makes it appear abnormal. [But] what we show in the book, and what others have shown elsewhere, is that racism has been, and remains, mundane. This is demonstrated through social scientific studies on the maintenance of racial disparities in health, education, income and wealth, and the criminal justice system. It has also been demonstrated, time and again, in studies examining the authoritarian attitudes and beliefs of whites, beliefs among whites and non-whites about inherent differences in intelligence and ability [in people of other races], and colorblind attitudes and beliefs held by both whites and non-whites who dismiss race’s continued social and political significance.
Such a suggestion also treats racism as a diagnosis, or even a significant symptom of some underlying psychosis. But as we show in the book, though racism can manifest itself as a symptom of an individual’s disease process, to deduce that racism must indicate a psychopathology is to ignore its social history as a political category, and also to ignore that a commitmentto a civil society is not the same thing as making the necessary changes for producing a civil society.
Where did the idea that racists are mentally ill come from?
The idea really comes out of the late 19th-century writings of Jewish scientists and intellectuals, as well as psychological theories on the crowd. Leon Pinsker, a Jewish physician and proto-Zionist, writing in 1882, analyzes “Judeophobia” as a disease inherent to late 19th-century Europe, and one that can never be cured — which of course would be used by Pinsker and others as justification for the need for a Jewish state.
Meanwhile, within late 19th- and early 20th-century theories on crowds and collective behaviors, we see racism not only constructed as a potential mental illness, but an illness whose expression comes through most clearly in collective action. [French social psychologist] Gustave Le Bon, who was really responsible for bringing the concept of the crowd into public discourse, understood it as an abnormal collective, one that abandoned notions of civility for a more primitive state. His notions of crowds containing contagion and suggestibility, for example, suggests that the crowd, when constituted, obstructs our higher ideals.
So if mass racism isn’t a sign of crowd pathology, what is it? How do you explain it?
In a recently published work, the sociologist Mattias Smångs analyzes comprehensive lynching records from Georgia and Louisiana in order to make a very compelling argument. [He writes that] publiclynchings (those composed of mobs of 50 or more participants) should be understood not as instrumental means for immobilizing blacks, but rather as instrumental for drawing firm boundaries between whites and blacks, solidifying whiteness as a dominant identity and form of social control.
Viewed in this way, in this framework, the lynch mob, as a crowd, is a form of collective-identity building, a performance staged by whites and for whites. [It’s] not abnormal, nor is it a reflection of our society’s most primitive, or uncivilized, collective self. Instead, and this will likely trouble readers, the lynch mob exemplifies normativebehavior, in the sense that it articulates symbolic boundaries, and concretizes collective narratives, even in its most violent and abhorrent acts. In essence, extreme racism is not pathological, nor is it necessarily symptomatic of some other psychosis: Racism, including its extreme varieties, is as American as apple pie.
You criticize the idea of the “authoritarian personality,” which says racism is a kind of personality deformation. But you also are skeptical of Stanley Milgram’s experiments, where he tried to show that everyone will commit atrocities if ordered to do so. Do these two seemingly opposed theories share common flaws in your opinion?
I think both of the studies have criticisms aimed at their research designs, which subsequently call into question some of their major findings.
Where the “authoritarian personality” goes too far in its theoretical construction is in how it argues that these [personalities], produced in early childhood, lead to a potential form of psychosis, or mental abnormality — an extremeset of beliefs. Most recently, Matthew MacWilliams, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, [discredited this notion when he] wrote inPolitico of a national poll he conducted that sampled 1,800 registered voters across the U.S. and across the political spectrum, looking to identify if there was a single variable that could best predict or explain whether a voter supports Trump. What he found was that the single best predictor was not race, income, or educational levels, [it was authoritarianism].
Rather than look at the childhood experiences of the voters, however, what MacWilliams did was look at their attitudes on child-rearing: whether it was important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent, obedient or self-reliant, well-behaved or considerate, and well-mannered or curious. So here, rather than grounding authoritarianism as a matter of psychosis developed in early childhood, MacWilliams located it in social practices and social attitudes and beliefs. This, to my mind, is a much stronger empirical case for authoritarianism as social product rather than a personality deformation.
You talk a bit in your book about studies of unconscious bias, which suggest that people, white or black, tend to rate black people lower in intelligence than white people. Do these studies support the idea that racism is a mental illness in your view? Or do they undermine it?
To my mind, they undermine it considerably. A mental illness is, by definition, an abnormal condition that a small number of people suffer from relative to the greater society they belong to. But if, as these studies suggest, many people hold unconscious bias toward minority groups, and many people across the racial spectrum believe blacks are less intelligent than whites, it is not an abnormal set of beliefs, or ideology. It’s, again, relatively mundane.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.