Sunday, July 12, 2020

Psychiatry, Racism and the Census

table taken from page 155 of the October 1851 issue of the American Journal of Insanity


The above table appeared in the October 1851 issue of the American Journal of Insanity

The June 23, 2020 issue of Psychiatry News focuses on Structural Racism in American Psychiatry. In that article I was shocked (and horrified) to find the above table. The article explains that the 1840 census added a new category, "insane and idiotic."

The article states: 

The census reported that in free states, there was one insane or idiotic person for every 144.5 Blacks; the ratio for whites was 1 to 867. However, in slave states, the ratio of insanity for Blacks was 1 to 1,558. Also, the farther north one went, the higher the ratio of insanity in Blacks, and the farther south one went, the lower the ratio. The ratio of insanity among Blacks in Maine was 1 in 14, while in Louisiana the ratio was 1 in 4,310. John McCune Smith, the first Black licensed to practice medicine in the United States, and Edward Jarvis, a physician and father of American biostatistics, wrote scathing rebuttals highlighting fundamental methodological flaws. John C. Calhoun, who had resigned his position as vice president to become a senator from South Carolina, supported the findings of the census, proclaiming, “Here is the proof of the necessity of slavery. The African is incapable of self care and sinks into lunacy under the burden of freedom. It is a mercy to him to give this guardianship and protection from mental death.” John McCune Smith’s conclusion was different: “Freedom has not made us mad; it has strengthened our minds by throwing us upon our own resources.”

It is so heart-wrenching to look back 180 years and see this example of both individual and systemic racism. I wonder how the words that are said today will be viewed by those who will come after us...

To read the entire article click HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Horrifying in the rearview mirror. In nursing school, I lived and worked at St Elizabeth's Mental Hospital in Washington DC. for three months. I heard so many life stories. I have kept them in my heart

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