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In 2013, a white NFL player was caught on video using a racial slur. He soon issued a statement announcing that he would consult “a variety of professionals” to “help [him] better understand how [he] could have done something that was so offensive, and how [he] can start the healing process for everyone.”

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As sociologist James M. Thomas writes, this was just one of many early twenty-first-century examples of celebrities framing their racist behaviors as a mental health issue. Thomas argues that this way of viewing racism has taken shape as part of the surging cultural power of medicine and psychology since World War II.

In 1944, in the midst of the Holocaust, the American Jewish Committee commissioned a series of studies examining psychological sources of prejudice. The most famous of these was The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950 by Theodor Adorno and three colleagues. The authors argued that antisemitism and other extreme bigotry was the product of “nuclear ideas”—foundational negative stereotypes, such as the idea that Jews are conniving or that Black people are lazy—that underlie an “authoritarian personality.”

Thomas writes that civil rights activists picked up this concept. In the wake of Emmett Till’s 1955 murder, NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins drew on Adorno to suggest that the hatred responsible for the murder was a “virus, it’s in the blood of the Mississippian.”

In 1958, psychologist and civil rights activist Alfred J. Marrow called for public policy to address not only the “mental health effects of segregation on its victims” but also “the health impact on the segregators.” He and other mental health professionals promoted the idea of racism as an aspect of a “sick society.” In 1969, a group of Black psychiatrists called on the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to acknowledge that racism was the “major mental health problem in this country” and to create a listing for extreme bigotry in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM). The APA agreed with their concern about the problem of racism but declined to identify extreme bigotry as a disorder. The issue, Thomas writes, was that for something to be considered a mental illness it “must deviate from normative behavior.” Among white Americans, racism was simply too normal to qualify.

Nonetheless, over the following decades, some academics and clinicians continued formulating diagnostic frameworks to identify and treat racism. One suggested that racists suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, which causes them to seek praise from authority figures. Another conceptualized racism as an addiction to a source of social power. In 2012, Oxford University researchers even proposed a pharmacological “cure” for racism: a beta-blocker called propranolol that appeared to reduce subjects’ scores on a test of implicit bias.

But Thomas argues that any effort to treat racism in an individual is necessarily targeting only the symptoms of a much larger problem. Understanding racism, a system of subordination that benefits white people, requires “models that are historically grounded, culturally informed, and politically attuned,” he writes.

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Contexts, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Fall 2014), pp. 24–29
Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the American Sociological Association