It has been observed that, when black men commit acts of violence, they are characterized as “thugs” or even “animals,” but when white men commit violent acts, they are described as “mentally ill,” “disturbed,” or “demented.” This is exactly what has happened in the case of Dylann Roof, the confessed shooter in the Emanuel AME Church incident on Wednesday. First, some context: as a person who lives with a significant mental illness, I recognize that mental illness is a real problem and that it is more common that many people think. I also am aware that many clients of the criminal justice system, including some individuals who have committed violent crimes, are mentally ill. For example, schizophrenia and manic episodes in individuals with bipolar disorder can result in delusions, hallucinations, and other psychotic symptoms that can lead, in turn, to violent behavior (as I have witnessed on a few occasions). However, many people who commit horrible acts are not mentally ill and I see no reason to accept the automatic lumping of people who engage in destructive behavior with mentally ill people. Some people with no outstanding symptoms of mental illness simply make morally reprehensible choices. Most mentally ill people, on the other hand, are largely harmless (at least to others).
The funny thing about mental illnesses, though, is that everybody seems to believe they can diagnose them. Most people who are not medical doctors (in fact, most people who are medical doctors) would not feel competent to diagnose someone with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, particularly if they had only heard a couple of facts about that person on cable TV. However, helpful bystanders will not hesitate to characterize a public figure, a suspect in a crime, or any other person who crosses their field of vision as “mentally ill,” “crazy,” “disturbed,” or “unbalanced.” Certainly, this is sometimes a manner of speaking, but in other cases (like the one immediately at hand) this is explicitly not the case. It turns out that diagnosing mental illnesses, and distinguishing functional from dysfunctional behavior, is not trivial and requires a great deal of training. There are also extensive formal procedures and diagnostic instruments that are essential in making psychological diagnoses. My plea is that people stop calling Dylann Roof and other violent actors “mentally ill” until—at the very least—they can show us a diagnostic category in the DSM-5 and document that the diagnostic criteria are satisfied. I do no believe that this is too much to ask.
Now that is out of the way, a question: Why are commentators, tweeters, and Facebook friends so eager to label some perpetrators of violent crimes as “mentally ill?” I believe that this behavior is rule-governed. People use these label for perpetrators who are more like them or with whom they are more likely to identify. This has the effect of attributing antisocial behavior in people we see as like us to a more-or-less external agent. On the other hand, one is more likely to describe those with whom one identifies less using labels that internalize or essentialize antisocial behavior while maximizing agency. As a result, the mostly-white commentariat describes Dylann Roof as “mentally ill” but describes young black men who engage in violent behavior as “thugs.”
This is not a minor problem. By labeling Dylann Root as “mentally ill,” white America is able to avoid the real issue raised by this shooting: the racial animus that still smolders in broad swaths of the American population and the structural racism that is facilitated by this animus. I know what you are thinking: You cannot assume that this massacre was about race just because the killer announced that it was about race during the killing, said that it was about race after he was captured, and wore a jacket with a Rhodesian flag patch on it. Those patches mean nothing—I'm sure they're stocked by every Joann in America. For me, the clincher is the fact that he confessed his deep anti-black anger to a friend, and suggested that he would realize his rage by carrying out a racially-motivated mass murder.
This anger is not inexplicable. Lower middle class and working class white men have long occupied a tenuous position in American society. While they have been exploited and humiliated by the ruling classes, they have had the consolation of sitting on a rung of the social ladder above women and various minorities (particularly sexual minorities and minorities of color). As the lower end of the social hierarchy has been gradually fragmented, even this cold comfort is disappearing. This is good for justice, but bad for lower-status white men. Meanwhile, the economic growth of recent years has not benefited these men; many are less economically secure than their fathers were. A substantial propaganda machine encourages men in this situation to blame their difficult state on enemies below rather than enemies above, often using veiled language, vague insinuation, and the voices of minority collaborators ready to provide racial cover for race hatred in exchange for material benefit. Sometimes this propaganda machine spins out of control. A person who responds to this situation and this stream of distorted information by engaging in acts of violence need not be insane. Indeed, they may be acting in a fairly rational (albeit morally unjustifiable and utterly contemptible) fashion, given the evidence as it has been presented to them.
A better system for treating mental illness in America would be a tremendous boon, but it is not going to stop white supremacists from killing black Americans. The hammer of justice has already shattered the old social order, and no one is going to put it together again, even if that would mean an end to racial violence. Economic policies that create jobs for the working and middle classes could very well mitigate racial animosities, but they would almost certainly not end them. In fact, policy questions about how job-creating resources are distributed are likely to breed some new animosities. Establishing a police state is no guarantee of safety, and is as likely to give birth to new terror as to suppress the old. Taking away guns might make attacks less severe or less convenient, but terrorism has never been limited to a specific means. Essentially, we must accept that white supremacist violence will continue in the US for the time being, not because of illness but because of malice. Please do not clothe bigotry in the slightly more respectable robes of insanity. Hatred is not a mental illness. Stupidity is not a mental illness. Being misinformed and miseducated is not a mental illness. These problems can be treated, but not with atypical antipsychotics or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Instead, they require hard work, sacrifice, teaching, preaching, engagement, moral clarity, and evidence-driven policies. We will only put this painful part of our history behind us by concentrating efforts on the roots of white supremacist rage. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long;” I say it will not “[bend] toward justice” unless we do our share of the bending.