Just as disorders can occur in individuals, so they can also occur in cultures. Racism is the non-scientific, non-factual belief that certain racial groups are superior to others and therefore have an inherent right to control, dominate, subordinate, enslave, or even annihilate “inferior” individuals or groups.
A belief such as this, which instils in a group the idea that it can, with impunity, disregard another group’s human rights, constitutes a form of disordered thinking called a collective delusion. A delusion is a fixed, false belief created to shore up a fragile sense of cohesion and self-esteem to a person who is fragmented and vulnerable. It cannot be challenged using rational discourse: any challenge is experienced as an existential threat to the individual, whose very identity is held together by the belief. When a delusion is experienced by a group, it is a collective delusion.
A collective delusion may be exploited to justify mass violence by anyone who would undermine the social order. Many cult followers, for example, have engaged in self-destructive acts because they were held in the grip of a collective belief in the supreme importance of their leader. The historical examples of the Holocaust, the Rwandan Civil War, and the Bosnian genocide in Yugoslavia illustrate just how rapidly collective delusions can be weaponized in ways that are profoundly destructive to social wellbeing.
The United States is presently confronting a collective delusion that has protected and encouraged violence against Black Americans for over 400 years. The pervasiveness of white supremacist ideology shields its adherents from prosecution for racist acts of terrorism while subjecting people of Color to disproportionate prison sentences and the threat of extrajudicial punishment by law enforcement. Historically, it has been used to justify slavery, segregation, and lynching, and today, emboldened by the racist rhetoric of the sitting president, it continues to legitimize discrimination and violence against African Americans. As many White Americans begin to grasp their state of relative privilege, others are becoming more enmeshed in a system of belief in which women and people of Color are perceived as competitors, enemies, threats to self-esteem or even to physical survival, or are comparable to objects, valued only for their usefulness.
The WMHC considers such beliefs to constitute a “cultural disorder,” a collective delusion that is necessary in order to psychologically protect the perpetrators of racist acts from experiencing the shame inherent in knowingly doing harm to another human being. Racist beliefs cause profound suffering to the victims, but also force the perpetrators to assume a posture that requires constant vigilance. Having to defend one’s rank and one’s right to dominate puts one in a perpetually insecure frame of mind, chronically scanning for threats and limiting one’s ability to connect with other human beings. People who occupy this social position may not consciously notice the toll that this defensive posture takes on their emotional and physical system.
Our societal mental health requires that we examine these beliefs consciously and collectively in order to expose and transform the underlying pathological premise that has resulted in violence against the mind, body, and spirit of untold numbers of Black, but also White, Americans. We must do this in solidarity with those who are denied their humanity, for, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Bandy X. Lee, M.D., M.Div.
Madeline Taylor, Ph.D.