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Why We Suffer From The Delusion of Racism

dylann roof racism
Jason Dias
Written by Jason Dias

Let’s stop pretending Dylann Roof is an isolated case who doesn’t represent anything troubling about us. Here’s why we suffer from the delusion of racism.

aNewDomain — Delusions have a cultural context. In other words, the ways in which the ideas of the mad contradict the minds of the so-called sane have more to do with society than is really comfortable. If you’ve ever worked a psych ward, that’s a pretty obvious statement – and the data tend to bear that out.

Jesus is a popular source of delusions. When I worked at the state hospital, we had three Jesus Christs on the unit at one time, and religious manias short of believing one’s self Jesus were relatively common. 

Through time, messianic complexes are pretty common and often fall on this character. For us in the U.S., religion is really relevant even for the irreligious. 

dylann roof

This guy gets a hard time on the Internets, for example. 

If you’re such an unbeliever, why are you always thinking about religion and religious people? Surely that means you’re really actually religious.

Think about his drive to work every morning. How many churches does he go by? How many of them have smarmy billboards explaining how he’s hellbound, how there’s no meaning in life without a particular brand of faith, and so forth. He doesn’t want to think about this stuff necessarily, but he’s bombarded with this stuff wherever he goes. Even if when he meets people their first question isn’t “So, what church do you go to?” 

Politicians talk about it constantly. It’s everywhere on the Internet. And it’s all over the psych ward.

The classic delusional identity should be Jesus but actually it’s Napoleon. 

dylann roofI’ve never met a Napoleon but they used to be more common, when Napoleon was more relevant. He hung out long after his own actual death. But these days culture changes much faster and those changes more quickly reach more people. 

Hitler, too, is always a popular figure in delusions. I recall a pair of patients explaining to each other all day long how misunderstood Hitler and his armies were. He was, evidently, actually the good guy in those conflicts. He didn’t do any of the thing he was accused of. 

All delivered in a lecturing tone, of course, the way someone less dangerous tells you with infinite patience how the moon landing was fake or 9-11 was an inside job. Hitler was a long time ago. 

Pretty soon, we’ll reach a time period in which no living person’s lifetime overlaps Hitler’s. 

dylann roof racismBut these kinds of delusions will be kept alive by the History Channel and by politicians’ assertions that the modern world is as bad as WWII. 

That the Affordable Care Act or minor gun control laws are the moral equivalent of the Third Reich are common assertions on Fox News.

More recently than Hitler, we’ve had a lot of delusions of surveillance and of Communists. Terrorism is a new theme. As terrorism and drones and so on filter through our consciousness more and more, those things more and more turn up in the dialogue of those in non-consensus realities.

But nothing permeates modern dialogue like race and racism.

We might wonder what might make someone delusional focus their mental energy on racism. 

But outside of religion, maybe nothing at all is more obvious in daily life than that America is a racist place. 

And as white men lose their unearned privilege day after day and are increasingly disrespected for lamenting the prospect, these delusions will grow more common, more fervent, and have tragic consequences — this should be accepted as given.

dylann roof racismConsider this. My drive to work takes me past a Jehovah’s Witness church and three other churches, to a worksite next to a mega-church. This church is prominent in our local news, with a pastor in a gay sex scandal, subsequent reparative therapy scandal, and also a disgusting shooting incident from which they are still recovering. 

One of those churches has a sign I have to drive by every day and I can’t not read it.

But if I lived in South Carolina, when I was done noticing the churches, I might notice that some of the streets I drove on were named after Civil War soldiers from the Rebel side. I might notice Rebel flags in windows, on bumpers, tattooed on white men, even flying over the Capitol Building. 

South Carolina is a place that had to be forcefully de-segregated where white people live in white neighborhoods and go to white churches, and black people live in black neighborhoods and go to black churches. 

Every day in every way, the average person is exposed to the impression that the white folk really resent losing the Civil War, wish they could continue to fight for the institution of slavery, and regret being made to honor the rights of people of color.

While the majority of the population may feel differently and say so, the truth is that racial tensions in South Carolina run high, fueled by real inequality. This is a place where white men own the majority of the guns. There are 19 active racist hate-groups working South Carolina right now.

We can see racism itself as a kind of delusion. We can’t medicate it or hospitalize those who have it because it’s paradoxically normal. In other words, so many of us are racist that it doesn’t seem like a delusion. But racism is really delusional. 

Because race is not a biologically useful construct. For instance, people in Denmark are roughly as genetically distinct from people in Ireland as they are from people in Egypt, but we wouldn’t call Danes a different race and then hate them. But people in Senegal are as different from people in Libya as they are from people in Wales, and we classify them all as black. Thus, ascribing differences in people to their race is delusional. 

Because white people are more different from one another than are white from black, on average, hating people for their skin color is delusional.

But in America, we don’t treat racists for psychiatric disorders. We reward them. As late as 1984 we elected overtly White Supremacist candidates. These days we’re more likely to use dog-whistle politics – that is, statements that can be defended as not specifically about race but that convention-goers all know refer to that construct. For example, thugs and welfare abusers are both words that refer to black people but that politicians can claim aren’t racist. 

“States’ Rights,” in the U.S., is one such code phrase referring to segregationist politics and slavery. Politicians can appeal to racist voters with this term while pretending to mean tariffs or something else innocuous.

Diversity issues are increasingly important to psychologists and psychology. When I teach on these issues, because I have faith in humans to be able to take on data and change their attitudes, I’m always surprised. And disappointed. 

At the end of a class reviewing the data on racial attitudes in America, the comments from white students too often include the rationalizations offered at the beginning. Like the idea that black people are to blame for how they are treated differently by employers. That a 17 percent difference in responses to resumes with the name John or Jamal at the top is due to employers’ experience with black people.  That black people use more drugs and that fact alone accounts for their over-representation in the criminal “Justice” system. 

In other words, the data don’t sink in.

A delusion is an idea that is demonstrably false. To qualify for the more serious mental illnesses one requires bizarre delusions. It requires ideas that are not only demonstrably false but that are really impossible. 

The other kind of delusion is the fixed delusion: the false idea that is totally intractable. When one tries to contradict a fixed delusion, particularly when said delusions are of persecution, then the one trying to do the fixing can easily get caught up in the delusional person’s problematic ideations.

In other words, if a person thinks a government agency is monitoring them all the time and you try to disabuse them of the notion, the person might start to think you work for that organization.

Some of the more extreme Creationists definitely fall into this category. Once all of their ideas have been scientifically falsified, they don’t abide by the finding but begin to attack science itself. The journals are biased, scientists are Satanists, the Church is under attack. The conservative news media is really this way, constantly accusing the “mainstream media” of liberal bias because it doesn’t share Fox’s conservative bias. Sometimes reporters with conservative bias even turn that into the story.

And racial delusions, once inculcated, are really pernicious. 

Just data can’t change our minds. 

Mere contact can’t change our minds. 

Events like church shootings and racially-motivated abuses by police caught on camera don’t change our minds. 

These things can just make us worse. The person correcting the delusions gets wrapped into the delusion. 

Which is all to say: If we accept the assertion that Dylann Roof experienced delusions, remember that he did not spring fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. He’s a product of our racist culture. Our racist culture, for which we’re all responsible. He’s not merely independently delusional. It’s more of a folie à deux, a shared delusion that we all have. And it is a lot more like the Manson Family or the Heaven’s Gate cult than a lone-wolf actor.

We watch Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. We don’t confront each other over our gun collections and conspiracy theories. We accept de facto segregation, don’t wonder why our television and movie entertainments aren’t sufficiently diverse, tolerate racist jokes in the workplace, feed Internet trolls, vote for racist candidates, deny racism, and deny it, and deny it. 

When confronted with the facts we blame the victims. 

Let’s stop pretending Dylann Roof is an isolated phenomenon that doesn’t represent anything troubling about our culture.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

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About the author

Jason Dias

Jason Dias

Jason Dias, PsyD is an existential psychotherapist who breathes words. He's a senior columnist at aNewDomain.