Sander Gilman | Is Racism a Psychopathology?
In 2012, an interdisciplinary team of scientists at the University of Oxford reported that, based on their clinical experiment, the beta-blocker drug, Propranolol, could reduce implicit racial bias among its users. Whites were given a single oral dose of the drug, then asked to complete the Implicit Association Test, a reliable measure of racial prejudice. Relative to the placebo, those who were given Propranolol experienced no indicators of implicit racial bias. Though the researchers warned of the danger in biological research being used to make a “more moral society,” they also asserted “such research raises the tantalizing possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs.” Shortly after the experiment, an article in Time Magazine, citing the study, asked the question that frames our project: Is racism becoming a mental illness?
My new book project traces the genealogies of race and racism as psychopathological categories from mid-19th century Europe and the United States up to the aforementioned clinical experiment at the University of Oxford. Using historical, archival, and content analysis, we provide a rich account for how the 19th century ‘Sciences of Man’, including anthropology, medicine, and biology, used race as a means of defining psychopathology at the very beginning of modern clinical psychiatry and subsequently how these claims about race and madness became embedded within claims of those disciplines that deal with mental health and illness. Finally, we describe the contemporary shift in explaining racism occurring since the end of World War II – from that of a social, political, and cultural consequence to that of a pathological byproduct.