With a cartoonish bigot in the White House, state terror that is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, and epochal inequality, there is, as of old, a whiff of insanity in white Americans’ racial attitudes, a hint of a nation coming unglued, foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog.
Were it not, perhaps, for Stanley Kubrick’s deft direction, the fight scene in the 1960 Hollywood classic Spartacus might well have been laughable rather than iconic. At nearly six-feet-four-inches tall, the African gladiator Draba, played by the former pro football star, Woody Strode, towered over Kirk Douglas’s eponymous character. The two actors, both in their mid 30s at the time of filming, gave credible performances, but when the moment came to deliver the cinematic coup de grace, Draba spared his opponent’s life, turning his instrument instead on his enslavers, leaping into the coliseum’s stands before he is murdered, brutally, by a guard’s spear, and a quick knife thrust from the smirking villain, played by Sir Laurence Olivier.
Later, Draba’s corpse is seen hanging from the rafters of the slaves’ quarters, as a warning to anyone who would dare follow his example.
Spartacus was adapted for the silver screen by the celebrated screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was one of 10 Hollywood writers blacklisted — and briefly jailed — ostensibly for subversion. But many, like the Marxist historian Gerald Horn, believe that the Hollywood 10’s real offense was their authorship of scenes such as the gladiator fight scene in Spartacus, which were intended to ennoble African-Americans rather than demonize them, at precisely the moment when more and more white workers were beginning to understand that their racial animus undermined workers’ political power.
In the 1943 war drama Sahara — written by Trumbo’s friend, the Marxist John Howard Lawson — Humphrey Bogart’s character glibly reassures a Nazi prisoner who chafes at being guarded by an African:
This man’s ancestors were men of culture and learning while yours were still in the jungle crawling on all fours.”
Scripts from Trumbo, Lawson and other Hollywood leftists turned the folkloric narratives of black depravity on their head, in an attempt to introduce some sanity into the national discussion on race and class that condoned the lynching of African-Americans for loitering, or “annoying white girls” or their failure to address a police officer as “mister.” Theirs was the voice of reason that was intended to break the seemingly hypnotic spell cast by films like Birth of a Nation, which depicted African-Americans not as comrades but coons, plain and simple.
A racial neo-insanity in America?
With a cartoonish bigot in the White House, state terror that is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, and epochal inequality, there is, again, a whiff of insanity in white Americans’ racial attitudes, a hint of a nation coming unglued, foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog. How else to explain the arrest of two black men waiting patiently for an appointment at a Philadelphia coffee shop; or the slayings of black boys wielding a toy gun or candy; the videotaped lynching of a man for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island corner; the massacre of black parishioners by a nerdy young white teenager; the fatal shots fired into the back of a young black man lying handcuffed and still on the pavement; or the white police officer who did two years for his murder?
Michael Vick did more time for killing dogs. Hell, in Texas you can get two years for littering.
All of which begs the question: Is White America mentally ill?
The answer depends ultimately on how you define madness.
In his classic book, The Wretched of the Earth, Martiniquan psychiatrist and Algerian resistance fighter Frantz Fanon posits that white settler colonialism is grounded in the creation of new, patently false identities, and the terrorizing of the colonized population to force them to adhere to these new identities.
The level of violence required to enforce this new cultural identity traumatizes both the oppressed and the oppressor: carpet-bombed constantly with images and messages of their inferiority, colonial subjects often struggle with depression, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy; while the savagery inherent in colonial relationships leads, among the colonizers, to a psychic rupture and homicidal tendencies consistent with police killings of unarmed darker-skinned men that characterizes virtually every white settler project, from the United States to Brazil, Israel to apartheid South Africa.
In other words, the brutalization that props up the colonial or neo-colonial state is tantamount to a war that leaves its combatants suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, or what was once known as “shell-shock.”
In another book, Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon wrote:
The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.”
The spread of Fanon’s thought
Fanon died of leukemia in late 1961 but his writings inspired a generation of revolutionaries and intellectuals, from Malcolm X to Edward Said; Che Guevara to Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; the Weather Underground and South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement. Watching news broadcasts of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. even described his murderers in psychological terms:
This sick country! That’s exactly what they have planned for me.”
While they wouldn’t say it publicly, many blacks regard the average white person as a veritable nutjob, whose grasp on objective reality is only a tad tighter than the Son of Sam killer, who indiscriminately gunned down strangers because his pet dog told him to.
“Without your history,” the late African-American writer Albert Murray once wrote, “you become hysterical.”
In their book Are Racists Crazy? How Prejudice, Racism, and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity, historian Sander Gilman and sociologist James M. Thomas trace the psychoanalysis of white supremacy to the Holocaust. Before the Holocaust — Thomas, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Mississippi, told MintPress — racism was widely attributed to public, or social factors, rooted in the frenzy of a mob. But the Holocaust struck such a nerve in the popular imagination that intellectuals began to theorize that it could only be caused by personal derangement.
At a 1934 mock trial organized by the American Jewish Congress and held in New York City, professor of medicine Lewellys F. Barker defined Hitlerism as “a ‘psychic epidemic’ … an abnormal emotional mass movement that reminds us of the Dark Ages.” Barker told a crowd of 20,000 assembled at Madison Square Garden:
To understand Hitler and Hitlerism, one is compelled to enter the domain of psychopathology.”
When insanity is the norm, is it still insanity?
But Thomas and Gilman found no clinical diagnosis for racism in large measure because, as Thomas told MintPress, a mental disorder is defined as:
aberrant behavior . . . and what we saw at Starbucks is the rule not the exception.”
He noted that a recent report found that 70 percent of all disciplinary action at a public school in Oxford, Mississippi involved African-American students, who account for only 30 percent of the school’s student body. While anti-colonial thinkers such as Fanon’s mentor Aime Cesaire describe racism as irrational, and a betrayal of reason, Thomas disagrees.
There is a certain logic to racism. Their logic says that blacks are inferior people and so this is a likely result of that inferiority. That is not illogical; it is implausible.”
In their 2012 book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in America, the sociologists and sisters Barbara and Karen Fields compare racism to witchcraft, in which its adherents not only see things that are not there, but believe in them fervently. In an interview earlier this year, Barbara Fields described racecraft thus:
The way I sometimes explain this to my students is by comparing it to a sideshow. There used to be a part of carnival sideshows where a magician would cut a woman in two. It was all done with mirrors and so on, but it looked real and the audience was spellbound by it. By the end of the show, the lady would come back on the stage along with the magician so that everyone could see that it was a conjuring trick. Racecraft is a conjuring trick that does not need a conjurer. The onlookers’ minds are also conjuring the spectacle for them.”
Racecraft does not end with the performer and the illusion appearing on the stage in their rightful being. It’s a permanent illusion. It can be a death-dealing illusion. One of the examples or groups of examples we keep coming back to in Racecraft is that of the police officer. For example, an Afro-American police officer or, in a few instances, a Latino police officer, is mistaken as a criminal by fellow police officers. This is a consequence of racecraft that can end with someone’s death. A police officer who knows himself to be a police officer appears to be a black man to another police officer, who then carries out an execution.”
Feature Photo | A group of President Donald Trump supporters is seen from the media van traveling in the president’s motorcade en route to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., Feb. 3, 2018. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”