Race in America: Is racism a form of “mental illness”?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Race in America
Al Sharpton with Esaw Garner

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.—Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton with Esaw Garner, the widow of Eric Garner, at a protest in the Staten Island neighborhood where Eric Garner died after a choke hold by a police officer. (Photo by Thomas Good is provided for public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

The grand jury decision to not indict the New York City white police officer whose choke-hold resulted in the death of an unarmed black man sparked outrage by liberals and conservatives alike—especially as it followed the earlier grand jury decision to not indict the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

Together, these cases raise once again the troubling, persistent questions of race, race relations, and racism in America.

One prevailing answer to those questions: Racism is a form of mental illness. But, is it?

We have a tendency to think of racism this way, observes sociologist James M. Thomas in a recent issue of the journal Contexts. Thomas cites celebrities Paula Deen and Mel Gibson as examples of those “who have pledged publicly to seek treatment for their racism—reflecting a growing tendency to frame racist acts as a mental health issue.” Thomas’ analysis shows that framing of racism as mental illness is not confined to a few high-profile cases, but a widespread phenomenon.

The view of racism as mental illness is reinforced by the strength of the value of individualism in American society. It locates the source of the problem in the individual. Racism is seen as individual disease that can be treated with “individual treatment protocols” like psychological or drug therapies.

The problem with this framing, says Thomas, is that it focuses on the “lone racist” and underplays the larger cultural and structural causes of racism and its perpetuation. It focuses on the symptom rather than the underlying cause.

Sociologist Claude Fischer commented at length about Thomas’ argument; he pointed out several of the “institutional and structural features of society that reinforce ethnic and racial inequities.” These features include: “the way school systems are structured, funded and staffed; persisting neighborhood segregation; the several-generational consequences of low wealth accumulation and educational attainment; political districting that effectively weakens minority votes; and policing practices that have the consequence of disproportionate punishment.”

Do you think racism is—or isn’t—a form of mental illness?

What do you see as the underlying causes of racism in America?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons and asking friends to read this series with you. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

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Race in America: A black-white divide in confidence in the police

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Race in America
Pew Research Center report on race in America

CLICK ON THIS PEW CHART to visit the Pew Research Center website, where you can read the entire report.

How much confidence do you have in police officers in your community? Do you have confidence that they treat all citizens fairly and appropriately—regardless of color?

White and Black Americans think very differently about the answers to questions like these, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. Consider responses to these questions from the Pew survey:

QUESTION: “How much confidence do you have in police officers in your community to treat blacks and whites equally?”

In 2014, about one-third of whites (35%) say “a good deal,” with 12% saying “very little.” The reverse is true for Black Americans: 17% say “a good deal” and 46% say “very little.” This racial gap has persisted over time.

QUESTION: “How much confidence do you have in police officers to not use excessive force on suspects?”

About one-third of whites (36%) say a great deal. Just 11% say very little. Again, the pattern is opposite for Black Americans: 18% say a great deal; 40% say very little. These differences have been consistent over time.

Does this racial gap in views of the police surprise you?
What are the views of police in your local community?
What is your view?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons and asking friends to read this series with you. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

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Race in America: Are racial perceptions of Brown and Garner cases converging?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Race in America
Protest of chokehold death of Eric Garner in Chicago on December 4 2014

PROTESTS SPREAD NATIONWIDE: This crowd gathered in Chicago on December 4, 2014, to protest the choke-hold death of Eric Garner. Photo by Samantha Lotti, provided for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Grand juries in Ferguson, MO, and New York City reached the same decisions—to not indict the white police officers who killed unarmed black men. But the public has reacted quite differently to these cases.

Were they both the wrong decisions—or the right decisions?

In the case of Michael Brown, half (50%) of Americans said that the grand jury make the right decision, according to a new poll by Pew. Just over a third (37%) said it was the wrong decision. The reverse is true for the case of Eric Garner. Only 22% of Americans say that the grand jury made the right decision, compared to 57% who said they made the wrong decision.

These figures combine the views of White and Black Americans. Once we separate the two, we see vast differences of opinion.

Eight of ten African Americans (80%) said that the grand jury reached the wrong decision in the Michael Brown case, and nine of ten (90%) said the same in the case of Eric Garner.

In sharp contrast, about one of four White Americans (23%) said that the Ferguson, MO grand jury made the wrong decision, and almost half (47%) said that the grand jury in the Eric Garner case made the wrong decision.

The differences between White and Black Americans are sharp and wide, but they also indicate some convergence: More whites changed their views between the two cases, moving in the direction of the majority opinion of the black community. Indeed, while 64% of White Americans felt that the grand jury decision in the Brown case made the right decision, only 28% felt the same way in the Eric Garner case.

Are you surprised at the racial differences in opinion?
Are you surprised that white-black perceptions appear to be converging?

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Race in America: Are race relations at a low point?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Race in America
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Protests continue nationwide, including this one on December 6 at Washington DC’s Union Station. Photos of that protest by “Slow King” were uploaded for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

What is the current state of race relations in America? Would you say they are generally good or generally bad?

Overall, Americans are split in their assessments of race relations, according to a CBS News Poll released just yesterday: 45% say that race relations are good; 43% say they are bad.

In years past, the assessment was more positive. More than six of ten (62%) of Americans said race relations were good in January 2012. Assessments were even more positive before then.

The appraisal of race relations today is at the lowest point in CBS News Polls since 1997. Then, only 38% said that race relations were generally good. An even lower point was 1992, when 25% said race relations were good.

White and Black Americans see things differently. The majority of Black Americans (54%) say that race relations today are generally bad; just over a third (34%) say they are generally good. White Americans are divided: 47% say they are good; 42% say they are bad.

Similarly, more Black Americans (46%) say race relations in the U.S. are getting worse, compared to 36% of White Americans who say the same.

What is your assessment of the current state of race relations?
Would you say it is better, worse, or about the same as years past?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons and asking friends to read this series with you. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

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Race in America: Will body cameras help the public—or the police?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Race in America
Police body cam with communication microphone

POLICE BODY CAMS are so popular these days that Amazon offers dozens of models. This style replaces a police officer’s standard shoulder microphone with a high-tech camera built into a microphone. Click the photo to view its Amazon page.

Demonstrations are popping up around the country—and many Americans are calling for the widespread use of police body cameras to record their interactions. Obama has pledged millions of dollars to support the use of the technology.

Do you think it’s a good or bad idea? Would it reduce fatalities?

Americans overwhelmingly say it’s a good idea, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Almost nine of ten (87%) say so. This support cuts across racial lines and political lines. For example, 85% of White Americans, 90% of Black Americans, and 89% of Hispanic Americans say body cameras are a good idea.

Should the police be required to wear body cameras? About seven of ten Americans (69%) say yes, according to a new poll by Rasmussen Reports. Consensus about this cuts across racial, demographic, and political lines.

Would required body cameras reduce the number of fatal incidents that involve the police? Twelve percent of Americans say that it would increase fatal incidents. Just over a third (38%) say it would decrease them. And 50% of all Americans say it will have no impact or are unsure.

Who would the cameras protect? Half of all Americans (50%) say it would protect police officers more than the people they deal with, while 26% say it would protect the public more than the police who wear the body cameras. White and Black Americans tend to agree on this—it would protect the police more than it would protect the public.

Do you think police body cameras would reduce fatalities?
Should the police be required to wear them?
Would body cameras tend to protect the police or the public?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons and asking friends to read this series with you. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

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