Black men are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than other subsets of the population.

Schizophrenia, according to the DSM-5, is a chronic mental illness that makes it difficult for a person to distinguish reality from falsehood. It is a psychotic disorder with hallmark symptoms like delusions and hallucinations.

While it is true that schizophrenia has a biological influence, we should also note that there is a long history linking sanity to race. Whiteness operates as the baseline of mental health; thus meaning non-whites, and blacks in particular, are more likely to be read as deviations. A prime example is the fact that a physician named Samuel Cartwright coined the term drapetomania in 1851 to describe the “disease of the mind” that caused slaves to run away from their masters.

Schizophrenia can function as a modern-day drapetomania. In his book “The Protest Psychosis” Jonathan Metzl argues that schizophrenia was a relatively rare and harmless ‘diseas’  that whites were diagnosed with between 1920-1950. This pattern shifted in the 1960s, however, as the specter of black radicalism arose and presented a threat to the status quo. Instead of engaging these demands, one of the various institutional responses was to medicalize black men as angry, aggressive and detached from reality. The FBI took it upon themselves to diagnose Malcolm X with “pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia.” This was a tactic to dismiss the legitimate perspectives and demands of black people.

Stating that there is systematic oppression is not a “delusion of persecution” – and pointing out that the criminal justice system targets black folks does not make one “paranoid.” Of course: there are people who genuinely suffer from schizophrenia and benefit from psychiatric care. The larger point here, though, is that anti-blackness involves the invalidation of black people’s sense of self and reality. Racism structures every institution of American life, but there is a widespread denial of this empirical fact. Imagine standing on concrete and declaring that they are standing on concrete, too … only to have them say that concrete doesn’t exist and you are out of your mind for believing it does. That is what it’s like discussing anti-blackness with far too many people.


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