An act of terrorism unfolded on American soil Wednesday night when Dylann Roof allegedly killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The victims were attending a Wednesday night Bible study. Roof reportedly sat in on this service for about an hour before going on a shooting rampage. His intention was “to shoot black people” -- a plot that had been in the works for at least six months. Sylvia Johnson, a relative of one of the victims, said Roof told his targets, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Yet mainstream media has already begun wondering what really might have motivated him to kill -- as we often do with white murderers. Fox News analystsignored the racist flags on Roof’s clothing and suggested the attack was religiously motivated, while The Daily Beast made sure to let America know Roof was “quiet” and “softspoken.” Other outlets cited his use of a medication that assists with addiction recovery.
And, of course, some have already questioned whether Roof was mentally ill.
In 1999, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a black psychiatrist, wrote in The New York Times about why he believed racism should be considered a mental disorder. "Like all others who experience delusions, extreme racists do not think rationally," he wrote. But the American Psychiatric Association decided not to recognize the phenomenon as such -- and ultimately opts to focus on the impact of racism on people's lives -- because racism's presence in the U.S. makes it normative, and because the organization "expressed their concern that if racism was to be classified as a mental disorder, racists would perceive an inability to control their beliefs and, therefore, not be inclined to challenge and change their racist beliefs." Some psychiatrists also attempted to get "pathological bias" into the DSM-V in 2012, but its inclusion was ultimately rejected.
Racism is not a mental illness. Unlike actual mental illnesses, it is taught and instilled. Mental illness was not the state policy of South Carolina, or any state for that matter, for hundreds of years -- racism was. Assuming actions grounded in racial biases are irrational not only neutralizes their impact, it also paints the perpetrator as a victim.
Black people, on the other hand, do suffer actual mental health issues due to racism. Here are a few things to keep in mind as the media digs into Roof:
I understood what President Obama said Thursday. "I've had to make statements like this too many times," he said. And I keep writing the same article. The context and names are different but the premise remains the same: To be black, specifically in America, is to be in a constant state of fear. There is no refuge. There is no escape. There is no sanctuary.
Racism isn't a mental illness, but the psychological, emotional and physical effects on those who experience it are very real. And I’m exhausted.