The Insanity of Racism

Monday, June 22nd, 2015 @ 7:28AM

Some are taking issue with the characterization of white supremacist Dylann Roof as being mentally ill instead of referring to him as a home-grown terrorist and a thug as a person of color may have been designated.  Yet, the young man seems quite insane as do many like him who are consumed by hatred of a people because of the color of their skin.  The horror which he inflicted on his victims, their families and the community at large makes Roof a sociopath with the most extreme elements of anti-social personality disorder.  Most racists do not take their hatred to the extreme that Roof did but their irrational hatred and behaviors toward people because of their skin color often borders on insanity.

So wrote social work scholar E. Franklin Frazier in an essay published in 1927 titled “The Pathology of Race Prejudice” in which he called certain manifestations of racial prejudice abnormal behavior.  The essay created such a firestorm among some whites that he received threats and was forced to leave his position at Atlanta University and flee the city.  Racism has deleterious consequences for both those who hate and those who are the objects of that hate.  The entire nation has paid a significant price for denying opportunity to black Americans through institutionalized racist systems.  In The Business Case for Racial Equity, a report released by the Kellogg Foundation, economists estimate nearly $2 trillion is lost to the economy because of racial income disparities.

Roof1On the other hand, too many black Americans have internalized racism to the point we have put up imaginary barriers in our minds that reinforce the real ones.  Psychologist Na’im Akbar calls these chains and images of psychological slavery which he says “preoccupies people unnecessarily and purposelessly with old hurts, tending old wounds . . . that ultimately provides no constructive solutions for the present.”  Leaders of some black organizations believe that it is up to them to solve black people’s problems and see little use in engaging white people or white organizations.  I started engaging white people in the fifth and sixth grade in a class for the intellectually gifted where I was one of three students of color.  That was my reality through high school.  When I graduated Brooklyn Technical High School in 1967—all boys at the time—there were 50 students of color in a class of more than 1,300.  I tutored many of my white friends so I never had the problem of feeling intellectually inferior.

While white Americans can rightly claim that they had no part in owning slaves or enacting Jim Crow Laws, they are benefiting greatly from policies that make their lives much easier than those of people of color.  The redlining of black neighborhoods that forces many black families to take high-interest mortgages keep many blacks from accumulating wealth.  That the median wealth of white households is 13 times the median wealth of black households is not the result of financial illiteracy.  It is the product of policies that deny people of color opportunities that white Americans take for granted.  Many whites scoff at the notion that such a thing as “white privilege” exists in America, but recent events have provided stark evidence that there are variations on how people are treated in healthcare, banking, education, and criminal justice based on skin color.

There are people white and black who are making a comfortable living from racism.  The Republican Party’s despicable Southern Strategy helped their party gain power but has done irreparable harm to this nation.  There are so-called civil rights activists who have enriched themselves while doing little to change the policies that oppress the people they say they are representing.  Racism is not an issue that whites must deal with or blacks must overcome, it is a scourge that we all must address.  The good news is that progress is being made although we have a long way to go to reach anything close to parity in opportunity in America.

Social workers cannot solve all of society’s pressing problems but we certainly should be actively participating in finding solutions and providing appropriate leadership when possible.  We must speak out.  We must bring policy ideas into national, state and local deliberations.  We must empower citizens all over the country to exercise their right to vote.  The Confederate flag will become the relic it should be when we vote more enlightened people into office.

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4 Comments to "The Insanity of Racism" add comment
Teri Cardwell
June 22, 2015 at 11:49 am

Mr. Lewis: Thank you for your article on the insanity of racism. The many points expressed in your commentary are relevant to today’s challenges to address racism in the US. I agree that social issues, and particularly policy, are in dire need of reform. However, legislation is only one part of a multifaceted and insidious problem. I do agree that our profession can and should take a leadership role but remain skeptical that significant change will occur in my lifetime. It is difficult to eradicate racism from the hearts of those who wish to do harm to others. The residents of the US must address the causes of racism at the core and taking one action each day will go a long way to future substantial progress.

[…] The terrorist hate crime and murders at Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th were allegedly committed by a young white man who espoused racist, white supremist reasons as justification for his actions. He held overtly prejudiced beliefs, and acted with deliberate intention. Is racial prejudice evidence of an abnormal psychology? Was the suspect in the Charleston shootings mentally ill or a sociopath? Or is he a thug? […]

[…] Lewis, C. (2015, June 22). The insanity of racism. [Post]. Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. Retrieved from: […]

Frank Johnson
June 22, 2015 at 5:27 pm

I’m not in agreement that he’s “insane” as you say. His cognitions are quite organized and his actions required a level of strategic thinking that most people who are severely ill do not display. His functioning is quite high, including the ability to have the sense to try to escape, driving out is state. A personality disorder doesn’t make him insane.

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