The Dangers of Medicalizing Racism

Treating racism like an addiction or mental illness undermines efforts to deal with its structural underpinnings.Treating racism like an addiction or mental illness undermines efforts to deal with its structural underpinnings. (Photo: Dr. Farouk)

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“My name is Trevor, and I am a racist” is a typical introduction at a meeting for a 12-step program in North Carolina. Inspired by initiatives that treat addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex and overeating, the Trinity United Church of Christ in Concord, North Carolina, has launched Racists Anonymous. At these voluntary gatherings, a licensed therapist helps self-identified racists to “deal with and eliminate racism” within themselves.

While this approach may appear innovative, it is simply the latest attempt to medicalize racism. Advocates for the medicalization of racism have suggested drug therapy and behavioral modification. Although medicalization is tempting, it is important to highlight the false presuppositions and disastrous consequences of such a theoretical shift. This approach erases the structural underpinnings of racism and silences larger calls for racial justice.

Drug Therapy for Racism

Pharmaceutical intervention requires that an undue amount of attention be devoted to biological processes. In a randomized experiment conducted in 2012 by experimental psychologist Sylvia Terbeck and other researchers from the University of Oxford, 36 white volunteers received a single dose of propranolol (a Beta blocker used to affect heart rate and circulation) before completing an Implicit Attitude Test. Relative to the placebo, “propranolol significantly lowered heart rate and abolished implicit racial bias” among participants. As if they were performing an autopsy, the researchers in this experiment divided the body into sections for the sake of locating the “source” of racism. Hence, racism is viewed as a matter of faulty wiring that can simply be corrected with medical intervention.

The main problem with this approach is that it re-biologizes racism. It must be remembered that racism is a social construct that has long hinged upon a theory of biological inferiority. Pharmaceutical intervention, then, poses a tautology insofar as a biological approach is both the problem and a potential solution. In doing so, drug therapy perpetuates racism by associating it with the biological realm in lieu of the social world.

While the wisdom of this study is that racism is linked to fear, the researchers overstep their boundaries in suggesting that propranolol — a medication that solely affects physical processes — be utilized by the general population to solve a social problem. The researchers state that propranolol may loan itself to “widespread usage for medical purposes” in treating “implicit bias outside the laboratory.” Such a proposal requires further entry into the grips of the pharmaceutical industry. Racism is only exacerbated by marketing a magic pill through the racist system of capitalism.

Behavioral Modification

Approaches to racism based on behavioral modification fail to comprehend white supremacy and anti-Blackness as structural. A prime example is Dr. Alvin Poussaint’s efforts to have extreme racism added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. He argues that verbal expressions of antagonism against disliked groups, overt discrimination, fantasies about lynching and massacres, and physical attacks are all “opposed to ordinary prejudice” and should be recognized as “delusional psychotic symptoms” for the sake of treatment. Addressing the massacre perpetrated by white supremacist Dylann Roof against Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, Poussaint reiterates his position with the declaration that “to continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy.”

At a minimum, there are two errors here. First, structural racism is reduced to a problem of mere individual prejudice. Second, the fixation on overt racism ignores the more covert forms of destruction, such as concentrated poverty or locating nuclear waste near communities of color. Consequently, extreme racism is falsely cast as a deviation from an otherwise race-neutral, nonviolent order. It is more accurate to discuss extreme racism as a difference of degree, not a difference of kind.

Racists Anonymous inherits similar pitfalls. By framing racism as an addiction, discussion is reduced to the registers of morality and maladaptive personal behavior. It is noteworthy at this juncture to mention that racism is a system of power. Bearing this in mind, we can see the problems in the first two Steps to Recovery promoted by Racists Anonymous:

1) I have come to admit that I am powerless over my addiction to racism in ways I am unable to recognize fully, let alone manage.

2) I believe that only a power greater than me can restore me in my humanness to the non-racist creature as God designed me to be.

To the extent that power is grasped here, it is deflected and downplayed. The first declaration that one is “powerless” is an attempt to frame whites as victims. Thus, the primary concern within this framework is for the individual impairments of white people instead of for the political, economic and social powerlessness of minorities. This structural dehumanization is eclipsed in the second statement, where racists declare their need for humanization. Whites are then exonerated with the claim that only a supernatural power can accomplish the mission of restoration. These ideological moves ensure that white power remains intact while staging elaborate performances of white “recovery.”

This is why racism should not be medicalized as a mental illness or an addiction. Medicalizing racism has the added consequence of silencing cries for social justice. The message is clear: racism is to be fought at the psychiatrist’s office, not in the streets. However, we do not need racism recovery, we need revolution. The prescription we need is for radical social change.