A Thought Piece: Disentangling the Web of Race and Mental Health

We spent a week leading up to Charleston shooting weighing in on Rachel Dolezal. She had been passing as black woman for many years. She said on the Today Show that she identified as black. What does race mean? Many asked and answers varied. Yes, race is a social construct. Some likened her comments to what individuals in the transgender community experience.

I struggled with making sense of it all myself. The thing about race is that it is visible and cannot be changed (when we speak of those who are born black). It becomes more difficult with many light skinned black individuals. Years ago, there used to be the one-drop rule when determining if a person was black. Some blacks at the time could pass as white. It becomes a bit complex when biracial individuals grapple with their identity.

Now, back to Rachel Dolezal. There is no way she can identify as black. She has not lived the black experience. Obviously, every black person does not experience their “blackness” in the same way but the one thing they have in common is a shared history of oppression. The transgender community also has a shared experience of oppression. The disabled. Women. All oppression is nuanced but can be loosely associated to a particular group who has felt it in some way or another. Collectively, the oppressed group feels it when it happens to one of their brothers, sisters, friends, acquaintances or…even a stranger.

Rachel Dolezal was white pretending to be black. A manifestation of white privilege at the most extreme level. You don’t get to choose Rachel. You just don’t. Yes, you were trying to help give the black community a voice but this was a step back not a step forward.

Then, Charleston happened. Days later and yet again, race relations were brought to the nation’s doorstep. Dylann Roof killed nine African Americans engaged in worship at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He sat there for an hour. According to recent reports, he said he almost didn’t do it because the worshipers “were so nice.”

Many point to mental illness as the most obvious underlying cause for Dylann’s shooting spree. Obviously, no one in his or/her right mind would commit this awful act of violence. Yet, my mind can’t get wrapped around the fact that the distorted thoughts of HATE were deeply rooted and (that) coupled with fragile mental health caused this horrific event. Fragile mental health is not the ONLY cause. There was a history of racist thoughts and behavior. As a quick exercise, following that premise, is every racist mentally ill? Even if they don’t shoot up a church?

Because the majority of the mentally ill are not violent. They are more likely to be the victims of violence.

What is the source of the hate? We are taught it directly or indirectly through systemic institutional racism. A quote I saw on Facebook of all places from Denis Leary (I know…a comedian) seems to sum up the source of hate. It goes something like this…”my kid doesn’t hate anyone…you know what he hates…naps.” Yes, racism is taught in one way or another and often, from a young age.

Racism is entrenched in every area of life. Structurally, on a systemic level, I argue (and people smarter than me have proven it) that it starts with housing that immediately segregates (and has for generations…remember Jim Crowe?). That conveniently flows into education. Poor neighborhoods (disproportionately inhabited by persons of color) don’t have access to the funding that their rich (largely white) counterparts have. Why do you think all my friends are living in the neighborhoods with the good schools? (And no, they aren’t all white.) Because once anyone begins to earn a modest income and have enough to leave to a better school district (paid for by a nice hefty property tax), they move to a nice home and search out a preschool (for their unborn child).

And conveniently (almost innocently), preschool is where it starts. The achievement gap between rich and poor slowly starts to form. The poor (often those of color) sometimes can’t afford preschool or next, a well funded elementary school, unless they literally win the lottery (aka a charter school). The public schools in many districts are so poor that they are breeding grounds. School to prison pipeline anyone?

So back to hate. Why did Roof do this? I have some theories. First, he grew up in the South where tensions and attitudes about race are often skewed towards ignorance. I wonder…did he grow up in a lower class household? Because when you are poor, you often become disillusioned and angry about your situation. Anger often becomes displaced. Finally, maybe his family, friends and dare I even say, teachers, were racist because unfortunately, it gets conveyed and learned either explicitly and/or often, implicitly.

And let’s consider the class issue in race relations. You must really be wondering now. Is this article getting convoluted yet? Class plays a huge role when we are talking about race relations. For all races. When you are hopeless, you do things you might not otherwise do. Gangs form out of a misplaced hopelessness that can gradually grow into hate. I assert that most terrorists are susceptible initially to joining jihad movements out of hopeless due to poverty, lack of education among other “non-radical” reasons.

What is the definition of terrorism? That is what many are advocating to label this incident. I was curious to see a few definitions. Here are two simple definitions from Dictionary.com: “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes” and “systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal” The cultural definition suggests terrorism committed by groups.

The FBI definition on it’s website is pretty clear: “Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

What is the definition of a hate crime? I looked it up. One of the definitions on Dictionary.com is “a crime, usually violent, motivated by prejudice or intolerance toward an individual’s national origin, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.”

The FBI defines it as such: “A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”

From, the definitions above, this looks like a clear case of terrorism. And I can’t get into right now (in this article) but why we seem to label some people as terrorists and some not…Simple answer: more racism.

What distinguishes this particular act and makes it more than just violence and a direct display of hate: the manifesto. I read the manifesto. It is filled with hate but surprisingly coherent—not without spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, of course—but fairly coherent. I’m not sure I would characterize (in my layman opinion) as psychotic. It made sense. Terrifying but it made sense. He was mentally unstable but I’m not sure he was psychotic.

Back to the mentally illness argument for a second. The mentally ill do often engage in grandiose thoughts and writings. The onset of psychosis is usually acute. He was on suboxone and it can have dangerous side effects.

But despite the madness, often, we usually see distinct aspects of a person’s personality and beliefs in a psychotic state. When I think back to my own experience with psychosis…what was I obsessed with each time? Education. I was grandiose with my plans. I had somewhat of a manifesto/plan. It was somewhat fragmented and disjointed but actually was pretty coherent at many points. It was all about reforming the education system. There were real glimpses into my actual “non-psychotic” personality: that of one with a passion for education. So when we think of psychosis, there are usually some real parts of our personality that seep through the psychosis.

Now it is up to the experts. It is clear he was racist. Was he mentally ill? Did the drugs he had been caught with at one point have a role? Mentally unstable yes. How do you define hate crimes? Terrorism? Can there ever be non-subjective definitions of these horrific acts of violence? What about the never ending gun debates?

I end this article with more questions than answers. The issues, when you dig deep, are very intertwined and really hard to entangle. But, I do know one thing, no matter what motivated Roof, (and even Dolezal) we need to talk about two things: systemic racism and mental health and above all…hate.

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