Co-Authored by Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer

“Mainstream culture…defines threats to racial order as a form of madness that is, still, overwhelmingly located in the minds and bodies of black [people].” –Jonathan Metzl

On September 28th, television host Bill Maher tweeted that “#colinkapernick [sic] is a f**king idiot” after the 49ers quarterback voiced his disappointment with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the basis that their campaigns are “trying to debate who is less racist.” Maher’s choice of invective has proven popular among those who disapprove of Colin Kaepernick’s critique of white supremacy.

Delegitimizing black protest by labeling its expressions as “idiocy” is not new. Since the very invention of the ideology of race, white people have struggled to accept black social protest on its own terms. Instead, white people have often marshaled the language of science to attribute black resistance to various forms of derangement, stupidity, and psychosis in an effort to delegitimize its critique of white supremacy. In fact, the endurance of white supremacy rests in its ability to construct, define, and police the boundaries of black pathology in the very moments in which it perceives deep challenges to its stability and legitimacy. When black protest threatens white supremacy, white “science” steps in.

The history of pathologizing black resistance to white oppression has its roots in the practice of U.S. slavery. Nineteenth century medical diagnoses, for instance, often reflected white slave-holding interests in the context of black protest and revolt. In 1851, Samuel A. Cartwright, a New Orleans physician and Confederate loyalist, published his “Report on the Disease and the Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race” in which he argued that high rates of physical and mental illnesses afflicting black persons were products of the supposed biologically inferior mental capacity of the “black race.”

In this report, Cartwright introduced what he called “Drapetomania,” known as the “Disease Causing Slaves to Run Away.” He claimed that Drapetomania was curable except in “slaves [who are] located on the borders of a free State, within a stone’s throw of the abolitionists.” Interestingly, Cartwright offered no explanation as to why these particular enslaved black communities could not be “cured” of their “mental “illness” and thereby continued to flee northward toward freedom. While “kindness”—keeping one’s property well-fed, clothed, providing enough fuel to keep the enslaved warm at night, and so forth—was the prescribed antidote to the “disease,” Cartwright nonetheless warned that “if any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer…they should be punished until they fall into [a] submissive state….’” Cartwright, in other words, viewed Drapetomania as a mental “illness” that could be beaten out of those who resisted enslavement.

In the immediate aftermath of slavery, everyone from physicians to scholars and politicians sought to explain the supposed high-rates of diseases, most notably tuberculosis, among black communities. According to historian Tera Hunter, “Race handicapped affluent blacks because they could not withstand the excessive ‘mental strain’ necessary to emulate the ‘higher degree of civilization’ and good health of ‘the better class of their white neighbors.’” The “diseases” of black communities were therefore the black bodies physically breaking down because they could not handle the responsibilities of freedom.

In the early twentieth century, black resistance was described as disease through the eugenics discourse of idiocy. Terms such as “idiot” and “moron” emerged to classify those unfit for civic life and to justify deportation, institutionalization, or sterilization. Both terms were used to police the project of white (Anglo, Nordic) race preservation.

The terms “idiot” and “moron” entered into our nation’s lexicon in 1910. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded, held in May of that year, racial eugenicist Henry Goddardproposed a taxonomic system—“idiot-imbecile-moron”—for classifying individuals with “mental retardation” based on an intelligence quotient (IQ). Goddard ascribed the term “idiot” to those with a mental age of less than three years. Moreover, he applied the term “imbecile” to those with a mental age of 3 to 7. A “moron,” in Goddard’s estimation, was best reserved for those with a mental age of 7 to 10. All three terms fell under the broad category of “feeble-mindedness.” Goddard’s typology also corresponded with precise IQ ranges:

In 1917, Goddard was tapped to serve on the U.S. Army’s Alpha and Beta Testing Team, a research body that conducted intelligence tests on over 1.7 million soldiers. A few years later, Goddard and his team published the results in their book, Psychology Examining in the United States Army. Whereas Goddard and his cohort found that 47 percent of whites from southern and eastern European countries could be classified as morons, they alleged that 89 percent of black soldiers fell into the same category.

But the timing of the report’s publication is curious especially given the prominent role black veterans played in resisting white lynch mob violence in the immediate aftermath of the war. In 1919, whites who were upset by black migration from the rural south to the urban north began a lynching campaign of near-historic proportions. According to the Library of Congress, at least 76 black Americans were lynched that year alone.

In the war’s immediate aftermath black veterans were often at the forefront of these violent confrontations. During the bloody “Red Summer” of 1919 in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Elaine, Arkansas and again three years later in Tulsa, Oklahoma demobilized black veterans used their combat experience and tactical and organizational knowledge to resist oppression in their communities. Alleging that 89 percent of black soldiers—and therefore black veterans—were morons, one can argue, served as a way of undermining their resistance to lynch mobs and the destruction of black communities.

The delegitimization of black protest was again on display in 1968 at the height of the Black Power era when eminent psychiatrists Walter Bromberg and Frank Simon dreamed up a diagnosis—“protest psychosis”—that described Black power as a form of “delusional anti-whiteness.” Four years later, in “Symbolism in Protest Psychosis,” they forcefully described that malady as “a psychotic illness with strong elements of racial hostility and black nationalism [that entails] the release of previously repressed anti-white feelings, which combine with African ideology and beliefs.” In short, “[the illness is oriented toward] reversing the white supremacy tradition or stating an objection to the accepted superiority of white values in terms of an African ideology.”

During the same period, and in keeping with Bromberg and Simon’s thesis, the idea of schizophrenia shifted from a condition historically associated with “white feminine docility” to that of “angry black masculinity.” In his compelling text, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease, Dr. Johnathan Metzl demonstrated how schizophrenia’s new clinical parameters were signaled in the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published in 1968. Schizophrenia, he argued, was reorganized as a “disorder of masculinized belligerence” through the language of hostility and aggression. According to Metzl, the diagnosis “mirrored the social context of its origins in ways that enabled users to knowingly or unknowingly pathologize protest as mental illness [or cognitive deficiency].”

Contemporary attempts to delegitimize black protest as “idiocy” reflects the scientific discourse of pathology that has been evident in white critiques of black resistance for decades. Arguing that black protest is grounded in derangement, stupidity, and psychosis is precisely what allows white people to sidestep the actual content of black activists’ demands.

Perhaps we can begin to understand and to respect black resistance by affirming that Colin Kaepernick is not an idiot; that black veterans fighting lynch mobs were not morons; that enslaved men and women who ran away were not diseased; and that the unwavering demand to be regarded as “fully human” in the eyes of the state does not signal a psychotic break. To the contrary, black protest, in all its forms, fundamentally challenges white supremacy and affirms blackness as fundamental to the fabric of our democratic society in the making.


Christopher Petrella is a Lecturer in American Cultural Studies at Bates College. His work explores the intersections of race, state, and criminalization. He completed a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter @CFPetrella.