For generations eugenics—the fraudulent, dehumanizing and harmful psychological theory that certain races of color were not equal to whites and, therefore, “deserved” fewer rights—has been used in the mental health system and in other social policies to justify horrific oppression of African Americans and minorities. The normal, painful reactions to this oppression, tyranny, injustice, and inflicted hardship and emotional stress through racism has been and continues to be disingenuously diagnosed as a “mental illness.” As such, today’s offer of “mental health” services to treat the impact of racism is suspect—another example of pervasive racial targeting and discrimination, over-representing African Americans as “mentally disordered” to potentially drug and electroshock them. In actuality, this is harm in the name of help from the very ideology that helped create modern medical racism in the first place. During slavery, runaway slaves were labeled mentally ill, the “treatment” of which was whipping, justified in medical terms as helping revitalize the blood to the brain.
And while horrific deaths from violent restraint procedures may have only recently been recognized, any failure now to address the underlying psychological or psychiatric eugenics mind-set that has permeated society and allowed modern racism to continue will leave in place the practice responsible for it—only steal more African American lives.
As the author of a 2019 book on medical racism pointed out: “When the concept of race is used in medicine and pharmacology, it continues to assert that minorities are 'other' human beings."
Historically, institutional or scientific racism has been rife in the mental health system and still impacts it today—stemming back to the late 1700s and the 1883 invention of a destructive and lethal psychological theory, eugenics, a term invented by British psychologist, Francis Galton. He promised to “raise” the “miserably low standard of the human race” by “breeding the best with the best.” And that meant the exclusion of African Americans, people of color and the poor. He argued that the improvement of mankind by eugenics “must be introduced into the national conscience, like a new religion.”
According to a 2006 analysis of Scientific Racism published in the McGill Journal of Medicine, “While science has the reputation of objectively testing theories using the scientific method, scientific racism is the exact opposite. It seeks to create definitions of race and culture based on opinion and extremely questionable evidence: ‘Supposed scientific evidence was marshalled, to establish both the existence of different racial types, and their depiction within a hierarchy of superior and inferior, where the Black was regarded as inferior.’”
In the 1940s-60s, African Americans were subjected to electroshock, psychosurgery, LSD and other experiments and “treatments.”
Negative eugenics played on fears of “race degeneration.” At a time when the working-class poor were reproducing at a greater rate than ‘successful middle- and upper-class members of society,’ eugenics garnered considerable interest. Eugenical sterilization for the poor, African Americans and Latinos became common place. Used as a means of controlling “undesirable” populations—the poor and unmarried mothers, immigrants, people of color—federally-funded sterilization programs took place in 32 states throughout the 20th century.
Today, psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health groups, many funded by pharmaceutical companies, claim that African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population, requiring their model of “treatment.”
Instead of fixing poverty, discrimination, stereotyping and racism, those impacted by oppression are labeled “mentally disordered” and often subjected to brain- and physically-damaging treatments. This must change.
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