A fired, ex-employee returns to work and goes on a shooting rampage. Or, a politician receives a severed penguin head in the mail, with a manifesto protesting oil drilling in the Arctic. Your inner-F.B.I, C.S.I profiler screams, “White guy, scraggly long beard, and cabin-hideaway somewhere in the mountains,” right? As the classic Chris Rock joke goes, Black people generally don’t go crazy.
These stereotypes about race and mental illness make it difficult to understand the unusual occurrences in which Black people commit horrible acts.
The recent saga of Christopher Dorner—the former Los Angeles Police Department officer who went on a ten-day shooting rampage and allegedly killed four people, before committing suicide at a mountain cabin hideout—is a case in point. According to his 11,000-word manifesto, Dorner decided to launch a one-man war against the racism, corruption, and brutality of the LAPD, beginning with the murder of a police captain’s daughter and her fiancé.
No one should use racism to condone his actions, but to what extent does the experience of racism contribute to these kinds of tragic events?
Black Americans have faced decades of trauma at the hands of White society and law enforcement. Beginning with the terror of slave catchers, lynch mobs, and the Klu Klux Klan, this experience continues today with the militarization of urban police forces, the mass-incarceration of young Black men, and racial profiling under the guise of “stop and frisk” laws.
This month, actor Forest Whitaker was stopped and frisked for suspected shoplifting in a New York City deli. Black and brown men are targets of racial profiling in NYC: they make up nearly 90 percent of people stopped and frisked by the police, while only 12 percent of those stopped are arrested for a crime.
And yet, despite this historic and ongoing experience of racial discrimination, very few Black people ever snap and go “Black Rambo” or become real-life “Djangos."
More than 576,000 Black (and Latino) men were harassed by the NYPD in 2011; zero shot back at the cops. Whitaker did not reprise his role as Ghost Dog, the ghetto Samurai, and threaten the shop owner with a sword. He asked for an apology. Indeed, before Dorner, it has been more than a decade since the “DC Snipers” John Allen Muhammad and son Lee Boyd Malvo killed or wounded thirteen people in a convoluted extortion plot and “Jihad” against the US government.
Because these events are so uncommon, it’s almost impossible to link these rampages to the experience of discrimination. However, since the 1960s, social scientists have asked whether widespread, collective blow-ups such as race riots might be caused by discrimination.
In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., more than 100 race riots erupted in cities like Watts, Newark, and Detroit. Some psychiatrists attributed the riots to “Black rage,” a mental illness categorized by fits of anger and violence. They linked Black rage to the crippling effects of slavery, ghetto poverty, joblessness, and a failing education system. Racism, according to the theory, can literally make Black people go insane.
The Black rage hypothesis resurfaced in the 1990s aftermath of the Rodney King beating, Los Angeles Riots, and the O.J. Simpson case. This time it was not just poor Blacks, but also middle class lawyers and teachers who were mad as hell due to the racism found in suburban neighborhoods and corporate boardrooms. In response to the feeling that Black Americans from every walk of life had reached the boiling point, a national day of spiritual healing and atonement—the Million Man March—was held in 1995.
There are lots of problems with the idea of Black rage. It shifts the focus on Black people, their problems, mental state, and shortcomings, instead of addressing the problem of White racism head-on. Social scientists call this a “deficit model approach” to the problem.
The framing of Black rage tends to associate action and resistance with mental illness. Black people who try to stand up and do something are not always crazy. To recall, in the days of slavery, Black slaves who tried to escape were diagnosed with an illness called “drapetomania,” while “dysaethesia aethiopica” caused laziness in slaves who didn’t want to pick cotton for free. The cure, according to the science of the day, was a good whipping.
Black rage cannot predict the tragedy of a Dorner shooting spree, nor can it explain why there isn’t a race riot every week. Anti-Black racism has increased since the Obama election, and statistics on unemployment, income, and wealth have only worsened. Yet, Black Americans remain optimistic about the future.
Instead of focusing on atypical outbreaks of anger and rage, more attention might be paid to the resilience of Blacks. Every day, millions of America-loving, law-abiding, community-serving Black folk go to work and take care of their families. We start up non-profits, volunteer as paramedics and firefighters, go to school, and live otherwise happy lives in spite of continued racism.
Still, we also have to deal with the invisible impact of discrimination on the lives of Black Americans. As studies published by the American Psychological Association show, racism can lead to increased anxiety and depression, and even physical pain. There is an unspoken issue of mental health in the Black community, specifically, the stigma of depression. As dream hampton and Nia Hamm put it, we continue to suffer in silence in shame.
Black men and women tend to bottle up the pain and hurt caused by racial indignities by becoming soldiers in the struggle. As Black boys we learn to master the swagger of the “cool pose,” and as grown men we pretend to be invincible. Black girls are forced to be "strong," yet blasted for it at the same time. In order to survive the street, the corporate boardroom, or academia, we wear the mask of Black Rambo and Black Superwoman.
Most of the time, though, the coping strategy doesn’t end in a killing spree or riot. It ends with Black men harming themselves with drugs, abusing and abandoning their families, or with suicide. Recent statistics show that one Black person commits suicide every 4.5 hours, and Black men are 5 times more likely than Black women to kill themselves. Last year, we lost entertainment icons like Soul Train host Don Cornelius and hip hop producer Chris Lighty to suicide. Mental health is not a “White issue.”
Racism doesn’t usually cause Black people to become unhinged like Christopher Dorner or go on rage-filled crime sprees. However, the vestiges of racism continue to wreak havoc on the emotional and mental state of Black communities.
Travis L. Gosa is an Assistant Professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies & Research Center. He teaches courses on African American families, education, and hip hop culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @basedprof.