Racism is not mental illness
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Editorial

Racism is not mental illness

In the last two weeks, the artist formerly known as Kanye West has scattered foul little nuggets of antisemitic hate across the media.

Although they’re largely incoherent, Ye’s outbursts seem to echo the ancient antisemitic trope about Jews being obscenely rich and using that wealth and power to control everything. (You know, the myth that makes everyone I know wonder why their power didn’t seem to be working and exactly where those stashes of nearly uncountable riches might be hidden.) It’s conspiracy thinking 101; all sorts of other conspiracies somehow find their greasy ways back to it. Take, for example, QAnon. Please! (Be quiet, Henny Youngman!)

Although his word usage is the opposite of clear, Ye (to use his new legal name) also seems to be saying that he is a Jew, and we are not. That’s apparently an idea that Louis Farrakhan and the Black Israelites brandish, although it is not logical or consistent with other things they say. But logic is not antisemitism’s strong point anyway.

But as he insults Jews, dropping the flaming hatred of his words into the tinderbox of this miserable polarized world, Ye is doing something else as well.

Because his hatred often is attributed to his mental illness, and because he’s said (by his friends? By the Kardashians? By him? I’m not sure, but it’s the received wisdom) to have bipolar disorder, Ye’s grotesque antisemitism hurts not only Jews but also people who have bipolar disorder or other mood disorders or mental illnesses, but who are not antisemites, or racists, or bigots of any kind.

Mental illness might cause someone to be less filtered, it might make it easier for someone to spew hate, but it does not cause the hate. Mental illness has nothing to do with antisemitism, or racism, or bigotry.

The hatred, the bigotry, the ugliness that seems to live inside Ye have nothing to do with mental illness. His need to blurt it out, and then to keep blurting, might be driven by illness, although it might well be more calculating. We have no way of knowing what’s true.

But we do know that having a mental illness has nothing to do with being full of hate. And we know that the last thing in the world that people who have mental illness need is more stigma.

I talked to Dena Croog of Teaneck, an advocate for people who have mood disorders — she’s the founder of Refa’enu, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with mood disorders and their families. She’s been fighting that stigma for years.

“Racism is not a symptom of mental illness,” Dena said. “It might have loosened his inhibitions — it might mean that he has less of a filter — but it neither excuses nor explains it.”

I keep going back to what Abe Foxman of Bergen County, the retired head of the Anti-Defamation League, has told me for years, and most recently last week. Antisemitism is effluvia, a noxious, actively toxic sludge that’s endemic to sewers around the world. Most of the time, the sewers are kept covered, but in some historic periods, the foul sludge rises and pushes the covers aside. This seems to be one of those times.

Although bipolar disorder is a very specific term, laypeople use it loosely. Sometimes bipolar disorder can include psychotic features; delusional thinking may be among those features, Dena said. It’s not impossible that Ye’s thinking is influenced by that, although there’s certainly no way for any outsider to know.

“The most important thing to know is that racism is not a mental illness, and it is not a symptom of bipolar disorder,” Dena said. “At the end of the day, what he has been saying is racist and antisemitic, and there is no excuse for that.

“Even if there is an explanation, there is no excuse.”

—JP

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