Should Racism Be Called a Mental Illness?

ByABC News
May 30, 2001, 4:45 PM

May 30 -- When Buford O. Furrow Jr. turned himself in after shooting up a Jewish community center in Los Angeles two years ago, he explained his actions as a "wake-up call to America to kill Jews."

Furrow was a member of a white supremacist group and an avowed racist. But he had also had mental problems: a year earlier, he had tried to commit himself to a psychiatric hospital, saying he wanted to shoot people and kill himself.

Furrow's case and other recent incidents of "extreme racism" have reopened debate about whether racism should be considered a mental illness.

Advocates say psychological treatment could prevent some people from committing violent acts. But opponents say it would open the way for violent racists to plead insanity to avoid punishment for their crimes.

Official Classification

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not list racism in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of psychiatrists worldwide. Most psychiatrists believe that racism is a cultural and social problem, not a matter of individual pathology.

Harvard University psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint thinks that's a mistake.

"Extreme racism is treatable, and sometimes even lesser forms of racism are treatable because they have psychodynamics to them," he told Nightline. "They don't exist as a social problem, they exist as psychological problems inside the individual."

Poussaint, who is black, believes that racism like other human behaviors exists on a continuum, and that racism's extreme forms, in which a person has racist delusions that can lead to violence, should be considered a serious mental illness and be listed in the DSM.

The association's officials disagree:

"Brutal, violent hate crimes are usually committed by mean, not sick, individuals and groups. We must not provide the convenient excuse of mental illness for those who are not genuinely ill," APA President Daniel Borenstein wrote in the association's newsletter last September.