Racism Isn’t a Mental Illness and Bigotry Isn’t a Disability

-Moirha Smith, UVM student and former PJC Intern 

Since July was minority mental health month and disablility Pride month, I decided to write about these intersections and how these identities are intersected with police brutality. Racism isn’t a mental illness and bigotry isn’t a disability.  I cannot count how many times I have heard that racists are mentally ill or that White supremacy is an illness. Ignorant statements such as these are extremely harmful and demonize people with mental illnesses. Racism is a choice and being mentally ill is not. 

Black people are more likely than whites to have disabilities and mental illness. We are less likely to receive treatment due to institutionalized medical racism. The healthcare system was built on the backs of Black people with the belief that we were not fully human. Psychiatry has been used to justify the subjugation/oppression of Black people. The carceral system is often used to house those who are homeless and suffer from mental illness. There are 10 times more people with serious mental illness in jails and prisons than there are in hospitals (Torrey EF, Zdanowicz MT, Kennard,2014).  Disability, especially mental illness, is stigmatized against Black people. Medical racism in the psychiatric field can be traced to slavery. Slave owners would hire psychiatrists to diagnose slaves with made up disorders.  Drapetomania was created to explain why slaves would run away. Black people are constantly misdiagnosed and imprisoned instead of being given psychiatric care. We cannot talk about police brutality without centering Black disabled people. 

Victims of police brutality are often Black and disabled. Black Americans with mental illness are at the highest risk to be murdered by the police (Treatment Advocacy Center). Earlier this year Mubarak Soulemane, 19, was murdered in West Haven during a schizophrenic episode by Connecticut state trooper Brian North. The officers were aware of his mental illness and still decided to use deadly force rather than de-escalation tactics and get Mubarak to the hospital. Being murdered by the police is not restricted to Black men.  

In my home state of Virginia, Natasha Mckenna was murdered by the police history of mental illness was documented, her first hospitalization was at 14 years old. Natasha was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Natasha was tazed 4 times with 50,000 volts during a schizophrenic episode (aampf,2016). Her murder was also caught on video. The officers responsible for her murder were cleared of any wrongdoing by the Fairfax County Sheriff’s office.  It’s time that we stop erasing disabled people from the Black liberation movement, they have always been here and always will be. Police brutality is a racial, queer, and disabled issue.