In more than one recent case, the perpetrators of violent, even murderous, antisemitic acts have been given legal clemency on the grounds of mental impairment.
Meanwhile, reports of irrational, racist behaviour, in the context of the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and its identification with people from China, have been depicted as constituting a form of hysteria, of madness.
Before considering the implications of equating racism and mental illness, it is perhaps useful to reflect on the historic place of charges of insanity or cognitive disabilities in discussions of racism.
Professor Sander Gilman, a prolific author, highly credentialled academic, polymath and seemingly indefatigable participant on the global speaking circuit, was in Sydney recently and addressed this topic.
As Professor Gilman illustrated with example after example, racists have historically found imagined mental deficiencies to be integral to whichever section of humanity they sought to exclude, belittle, enslave or murder.
Be they Africans, Asians, Jews or Irish, racism towards them was justified on the grounds that some biological factor restricted their ability to think logically, clearly or reasonably.
Racists first identified themselves as superior to the target of their racism. Once this was done, they justified this by claiming their targets deserved to be treated as lesser human beings, due to some biological or genetic weakness which merited discrimination and social sanctions.
Of course, this worldview relies on an acceptance of racism as being not just morally but also intellectually valid.
As such, it cannot be sustained when racism is seen as something which is wrong – not only because of the damage it causes to societies, but due to a broader understanding that it is anti-intellectual.
If racism is understood to be wrong, then the template shifts – problems are perceived as being with the perpetrators and not the targeted victims.
This led to some scholars turning the “inferior races have mental impairments” concept on its head – interpreting racism as the mental illness.
They asked, what could lead any person to disregard their own subjective observations and objective experiences, and endow entire subsets of humanity with particular behavioural features?
Why would educated individuals endow other human beings with undocumented and undocumentable mythical and mystical powers, bizarre anti-social behaviour and other features which, in their eyes, made the targets of their prejudice unfit for participation in human society?
Taken to another level, the question arose why governments and the communities they represented would sacrifice financial or social well-being by excluding potentially significant contributors to society on racist grounds? Or more dramatically, why would leaders sacrifice national war efforts or the chances at rebuilding damaged political ecosystems by obsessively persecuting individuals who could otherwise be assisting in the interests of the greater good of that society?
It is easy – too easy – to say the answer, quite simply, is insanity on a macro-level, a form of madness driving out the capacity not just for logic, but for self-interest.
On an individual level, people who committed murder because they falsely believed that all members of a particular community were wealthy, or, in another example, were existential enemies of humanity, have been defended in court, and received a degree of clemency, because such behaviour was deemed to be self-evidently insane.
A key problem with these analyses is that they allow an individual who has committed an act of racism to relinquish any personal responsibility – defending actions with the defence that their behaviour is due to an illness rather than being the results of judgements which involve objective free will.
As Professor Gilman notes, it also can lead to a conclusion that the way to “cure” racism is to give populations psychiatric drugs, perhaps added to the water supply together with fluoride!
It is a moral judgement, sometimes with a political overlay, to describe racism as wrong, ridiculous, and damaging to society, and a value judgement to call it illogical, inane or counterproductive. It is generally extremely questionable science to suggest it is a form of insanity.