In the wake to the horrific shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I and I’m sure most people are in shock. Unfortunately mass murders committed by white men are becoming all to common and we are justifiably frustrated by the lack of response that they get. I mean the news media is in overdrive churning out stories about the victims, the alleged perpetrator, the public response and the responses from politicians but in terms of a response that might actually stop events like this from happening there is little or no movement.
This is because atrocities committed by white people are all to often blamed on mental illness regardless of actual psychiatric diagnosis.
We know many things for sure about the nine murders at the Emanuel AME Church. We know that the alleged shooter Dylann Storm attended a prayer meeting there before making a statement, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go”. He then killed nine people.
The Emanuel AME Church is historically black and has ties to the civil right movement. It has been targeted by racist violence in the past. It is a recognizable symbol for black people in the United States. This in conjunction with Roof’s words should lead anyone to the conclusion that the motive behind the shooting was racism.
Yet, there are many who want to label Roof as mentally ill, they do this to erase the racist motives of the crime. Presidential candidate Jeb Bush said “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes”. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said “we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”
This is ridiculous, the motive was white supremacy and racism but they get away with claims of ignorance because the suggestion is that the shooter was insane. Mental illness in this context exists in isolation and is completely unknowable. This is false from two perspectives. The first being the automatic assumption that white perpetrators of mass violence are mentally ill at all. Secondly from the assumption that mental illness exists in a vacuum without social involvement.
The first issue is the assumption that actions that are widely viewed as horrific must be the result of mental illness, unless of course the perpetrator is not white (then they’re a terrorist or their entire race is somehow uncivilized). The idea that rational people can decide to do horrific things is really hard for people to grasp but it is true.
The second is that racism as my post title suggests isn’t a form of mental illness. People who are mentally ill can be racist, misogynist or other kinds of bigot but rest assured it’s because of society not because they’re ill.
There is also the issue of criminal culpability. Simply having a mental illness does not automatically keep someone from being held criminally responsible. A person has to either be unaware of their actions at the time of the crime or to have been incapable of knowing that their actions were wrong. That does not mean simply disagreeing with the standard public mores. Which is why Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was able to be found both sane and responsible for the 77 lives he took, despite his lack of remorse and personal belief in his actions. People who can rationalize can unfortunately use that rationality to make horrific decisions based on virulent racist ideologies.
So why then is it so common for people to focus on the sanity of white perpetrators? A couple of days ago, I asked this hypothetical question on twitter “How can mental illness be used to humanize white perpetrators of mass violence but dehumanize peaceful people with an actual diagnosis?” It was rhetorical, I know the answer. The answer is racism and white supremacy.
White people who commit mass violence are in an interesting position in that, their crimes are softened by the excuse of insanity. In situations where the perpretrator is not white, outsiders demand accountability from the entire group. Muslims must decry acts of terror that they have no personal connection to. Black people are constantly told to look inward as a community to solve problems whether they are the perpetrator or the victims of crime. Yet here with white perpetrators they are both humanized and made other all at once. The full force of personal responsibility is removed by the label of insanity, but it is also this label that serves to shield white people from being collectively scrutinized in the way that we actively scrutinize others.
People with mental illness are deeply stigmatized (I am not going to look at that to closely here because the focus needs to be on racism right now but you can read more about how blaming crime on mental illness unfairly stigmatizes the mentally ill here). It is just another category by which white people can use to separate a person from the white male ideal. So even though the skin colour is the same, white perpetrators are still made separate from the rest of white people. This absolves white people from having to address the issues of white supremacy and how they lead to violence. The issue of violent white supremacy isn’t really just about individuals who choose violence but about the culture that fosters racist ideals and refuses to take responsibility for them.
This idea isn’t just a problem for white people who are unwilling to acknowledge the racist motivations of this crime. Even progressive allies fall into the trap of labeling racism as insane, he says “the roads that black people drive on are named for confederate generals, who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s…that’s insanity” (emphasis mine).
The video has been viewed over a million times. It has appeared in my Facebook feed over and over. The problem is that systemic racism isn’t some form of diagnosible mass hysteria. The following things were not the result of widespread mental illness.
Apartheid South Africa
American slavery and subsequent segregation.
Canadian residential school system
The list could really continue. Equating systemic racism and white supremacy to insanity is a cop out, one that has been used to excuse white violence on both the individual and group level. It is not only false but actually fosters that idea that these incidents can’t be avoided. Which I know wasn’t Stewart’s intent, it just shows how far the rhetoric around denying white culpability is. Racism isn’t a mental illness and the evidence of systemic racism should not be explained in those terms because in the end it just excuses it.
As a result of this shooting, if the rhetoric of mental health continues, you can be sure its connection to racism will also be lost. We won’t see calls to treat and pathologize those who participate on websites like Stormfront. No one really believes that expressions of racism are inherently insane, it is just a convenient excuse to avoid forcing us to look within. WE can continue to claim that these kinds of actions have nothing to do with white people as a whole. Our white privilege and supremacy intact even if we recognize the true motives of the Charleston shooting as racist.
More often than not mental illness is not the reason for a crime or tragedy but it is the excuse most often given to excuse the wider reality of white supremacy and white culpability