By: Kristyn Byrd
Daniel Prude. Kenta Settles. Nathaniel Pickett II. Eugene Martindale III. Deborah Danner.
All Americans who were killed or violently arrested.
The Atlanta Spa Shooter, Kentucky Kroger Shooter, El Paso Shooter, Dayton Ohio Shooter, Parkland Florida Shooter.
These killers were all having a seriously “bad day”.
What do both groups have in common? Each person was diagnosed with a mental illness. However, the first group was villainized by the media and said the police were justified in their killings. The second group of convicted murderers were sympathized by the media. The news outlets cried out for mental health awareness and how we were failing members of our society.
Failing our white members of society.
Prisons over Mental Facilities
Since the mid 1950s-1980s, we’ve observed a decreasing trend in patients admitted to mental hospitals. While this was a period of economic prosperity and social awakening for the U.S., state/federal prison populations were increasing during this time, as well. In this time period, researchers recorded that state/federal prisons could have populations with mental illnesses as low as 10% and as high as 50%. Tangentially, studies were revealing that the minority groups of the United States were overrepresented in prisons, when they were only less than 30% of the population as a whole. During the 1950s-1980s, there was a correlation of imprisoning persons of color, especially African Americans, rather than admitting them to mental institutions to receive the assistance they deserved.
Racial Double Standards
Now, thirty-some years later, mental illness has become a growing topic of concern for the citizens of the United States, but it seems to be so only for our caucasian citizens. For some reason, we do not extend the same empathy to our citizens of color. This disparity is transparent in the acts of violence mentioned above. We've seen patterns of African Americans with mental illnesses harassed, beaten, arrested, or killed by the police. On the contrary, white Americans who commit atrocious acts of violence against innocent people tend use mental illness as a way to protect themselves. The National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) discovered that “prosecutors are more likely to grant pretrial diversion to white defendants than to black or Latinx defendants” with similar mental illness characteristics.
Why does society allow white Americans, specifically white men, to use their mental illness as a privilege to escape corporal punishment? In the same vain, why does society hurt its citizens of color for simply existing with a mental illness? Why are there such obvious discrepancies in the ways that people of different races with mental illness are treated?
Representation in the Media
Unfortunately, this is not a new theme. In 2015 Anthea Butler, Professor of African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an article titled “Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill?” In this article, Butler juxtaposed the striking language disparities in the media when reporting on caucasian vs African American aggressors. It was blatantly apparent that white Americans received preferential treatment, with acts of violence depicted as out of the ordinary for these shooters. These shooters were smart, dependable, but mentally ill children—this one violent act shouldn’t ruin them forever. On the other hand, African Americans were slandered, called thugs or terrorists to further dehumanize them. Butler researched more on media language and found that “black children often morph into potentially menacing adults after they’ve been victimized, while white mass shooters are portrayed as children, even if they’re well into their 20s”. Although Butler wrote this article in 2015, we still see the patterns in media today. In 2019, former President Donald Trump seemingly defended the El Paso shooter by saying “These are people that are very, very seriously mentally ill”. The El Paso shooting left 29 Hispanic citizens dead, but instead of focusing on the shooter’s malicious actions, Trump refocused attention on the (white) mental illness issue in America.
Dispositional Attribution Bias
Society primes us to villainize African Americans. Police believe that black children are potential threats to society, but not extend the same caution to white children. The United States has been plagued by dispositional attribution bias towards African Americans. Dispositional attribution is a psychological theory that describes how we assign the cause of behavior to someone’s internal characteristic of a person, rather than to outside forces. As a nation, we are so quick to judge African Americans as being inherently bad, devious, or troublesome due to the legacies of systemic racism in America. This is an undeniable observation, as NAMI finds “people of color are…less likely to be identified as having a mental health problem. Also, they are less likely to receive access to treatment once incarcerated”. The media almost always assumes that whenever African Americans are killed, it was a factor of their own treacherous doings, and not because their manic depressive episode scared the police officers.
Dangerous stereotypes that torment the African American community have created easy scapegoats for police brutality. Usually, we create stereotypes to make shortcuts for our brains (ex: children don’t like vegetables, teenagers are rebellious, etc.). However, we have created stereotypes that white murderers are mentally ill and black men are always threatening. Thus, white men can, quite literally, walk around with a rifle and kill unsuspecting people while black men are killed for looking the wrong way at officers.
Mental illness is prevalent in every race in the United States, but we must recognize that it cannot be an excuse to kill for some and be killed for others. For too long, white Americans have used their privilege to disguise their violence as repercussions of their mental illnesses. We need to start teaching that:
1) mental health resources should be equitably open to everyone, and there’s no stigma behind seeking them out
2) people of every sex, race, religion can suffer from mental illness; there is no stereotype of someone who suffers from mental illness
3) mental illnesses do NOT excuse murderers
4) mental illnesses do NOT excuse white murderers for their crimes and they should be punished according to their crimes
5) prisons are not substitutes for mental health institutions
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