Is extreme racism a mental illness?

For many years psychiatrists and psychologists have debated whether extreme racism is a mental illness.

There are some suggestions that extreme racism could be a symptom of some psychiatric disorders. For example:

  • A person with paranoid personality disorder might focus their ‘paranoia’ – that is, their worries, blame and fears – onto people of different ethnicities. They may believe that it is acceptable to ‘protect’ themselves from this visible threat through hate and violence.
  • A person with delusional psychotic disorder might be living in a ‘make believe’, delusional world in which they believe people of different ethnicities are out to get them. That means fear for their own safety may drive their violence and hatred.

This links extreme racisim to mental illness, but it is not the illness per se.  It is simply one way that the condition becomes visible to other people.

If extreme racism were to be viewed as a purely medical problem, it raises a number of ethical dilemmas:

  • Being diagnosed with any mental illness often attracts stigma and discrimination. Therefore, anyone thought to have a mental illness which causes them to be racist may find themselves ostracised from society. Stigmatising someone whose main ‘symptom’ is discrimination and violence may in fact reinforce their existing behaviour!
  • Being diagnosed as an ‘extreme racist’ means a person may no longer legally or ethically responsible for their actions. They may come to believe they have ‘medical justification’ to discriminate against, or even kill, someone of another race, again reinforcing their existing behaviour.
  • Turning racism into a medical problem takes the pressure off individuals and governments to work towards eliminating discrimination and ‘racist’ behaviour by social and political means.

Arguments against extreme racism as a mental illness focus on the belief that any type of prejudice is simply learned behaviour that a person picks up from their family, social environment or culture (or a bit of all three).

For this reason racism is not a medical problem at all, rather an attitude that gives a person membership into a particular group, and makes them feel superior to people not in that group.

Sometimes extreme racism can be traced back to a trauma in the person’s life, or to a current difficult situation that involves conflict with a different ethnic group. When this happens, some mental illnesses may predispose a person to direct their hatred towards a particular group of people who they perceive as linked to the original threat. However, that doesn’t automatically mean that extreme racists have a clinically diagnosable disorder because they are still just reacting to something in their upbringing or environment.

Anything to do with people’s thoughts, attitudes and beliefs rarely has one answer, and the debate on extreme racism is no different. The reasons behind human behaviour can rarely be narrowed down to one cause.

The way we act is a mix of biological, psychological and social origins. That means disregarding the social, cultural and learned aspects of racism to focus on a medical model ignores all the other ingredients that go together to create the good – and not-so good – aspects of being human.