Should Racism Be Called a Mental Illness?

ByABC News

May 30, 2001 -- 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.

Borenstein also wrote that an APA work group had considered including racism in the DSM, but declined because there was not sufficient scientific research on the issue to meet the manual's strict criteria. He said that some racists might have psychological illnesses which are in the DSM, but that racism is too broad a phenomenon to label as a single mental illness.

Poussaint and other critics of the APA's position say that Borenstein and the APA have shown no willingness to devote funding to research on racism.

A Legal Defense?

The federal prosecutor in Furrow's case, Michael Gennaco, doubts that classifying racism as a mental disorder would allow racist defendants to escape punishment.

"I think that the federal definition of insanity would not include extreme racism as a defense because in order to be insane under the federal system, you have to not be able to know the difference between right and wrong," says Gennaco, who has handled hate crime cases for 15 years in more than 20 states. "The impact would be rather slight with regard to the cases in which I have been involved in."

Furrow, who wounded five people at the Jewish center and killed a Filipino-American a few miles away, pleaded guilty in the case and faced the death penalty. Gennaco declined to seek the death penalty, because of his history of mental illness.

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