Psychologists’ history of systemic racism is still ingrained in current practices, which continue to harm and dehumanize people of color.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has issued a public apology for the “racism, racial discrimination, and denigration of people of color” committed by psychologists, after compiling what it called “a stunning chronology” of psychology’s history of racism since the organization’s founding in 1892.
The apology, issued October 29, acknowledges “the roles of psychology and APA in promoting, perpetuating, and failing to challenge racism, and the harms that have been inflicted on communities of color as a result.”
The admission comes 10 months after the American Psychiatric Association issued its apology for psychiatry’s “contributions to the structural racism in our nation,” stating that “these appalling past actions, as well as their harmful effects, are ingrained in the structure of psychiatric practice.”
For more than 50 years, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) has investigated and exposed the sordid history of U.S. psychiatry and psychology in instigating and perpetuating systemic racism, facts which these psychological member organizations are now admitting. CCHR further intensified its efforts in June 2020 by forming the Task Force Against Psychiatric Racism and Modern-Day Eugenics to inform and empower people of color with facts about the racism and eugenics still present in mental health diagnosis and treatment today.
The APA’s “historical chronology,”an adjunct to its apology, details how, from the time the organization was founded, “psychologists established, participated in, and disseminated scientific models and approaches rooted in scientific racism.” That “scientific racism” was in the form of eugenics, a pseudo-scientific theory that some races are biologically inferior to others.
“Labeling conduct as sick merely because it differs from our own is nothing more than a discriminatory act disguised as a medical judgment.”
–Thomas Szasz, M.D., late professor of psychiatry and humanitarian
Psychologists in the American mental health movement from the 1890s on adopted and actively promoted eugenics. Many psychologists fueled the movement by conducting studies that purportedly found some sort of racial inferiority in people of color, thereby providing ideological support for segregation, sterilization of people of color, laws against interracial marriage, and race-based immigration. The residual effects of eugenics are still found in the institutional racism that the American psychology and psychiatry associations are now admitting infects their ranks.
The APA’s chronology reveals that “from the 1950s on, psychologists received money from the Pioneer Fund, created in the 1930s to promote racial homogeneity, ‘repatriation’ of Black Americans to Africa, and segregation,” and that “from the 1960s on, psychologists gave explicit assistance to and participated in racial extremist, White nationalist, and neo-Nazi groups.”
The last American psychologist the APA singles out in its recounting of its racist history is Arthur Jensen, professor of educational psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who in 1969 published research purporting to show racial differences in IQ scores. His work was widely used by racist and neo-Nazi groups.
However, a glaring omission in the APA’s chronology is the late Richard Herrnstein, Harvard professor of psychology and co-author of the highly controversial book, The Bell Curve, published in 1994, in which he claimed that Blacks performed worse on intelligence tests than Whites and are “genetically disabled.” He advocated selective breeding to limit the black population.
Concerning intelligence tests and other psychological testing and diagnosis, the APA admits “psychologists created and promoted…psychological tests and instruments that have been used to disadvantage many communities of color,” leading to the overdiagnosis and misdiagnosis still prevalent today.
The APA did not provide details on the impact of that false diagnosing, such as the fact that African Americans are disproportionately diagnosed with mental illness and disproportionately admitted to psychiatric facilities. They are more likely to be diagnosed as having a psychotic disorder, especially schizophrenia, more often diagnosed with a conduct disorder, and overly prescribed antipsychotic drugs.
The legacy of eugenics is found in the education system today. Students of color are disproportionately labeled with learning disabilities and emotional disabilities and placed in special education classes, which are more likely to be in substantially separate settings. Conversely, African American students are under-represented in gifted and talented programs.
For all its self-reproach for the litany of racist harms perpetrated by psychologists against people of color, the APA still fails to address the most egregious abuse of all: psychologists’ use of the “diagnostic” labels found in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), ever since it was first published in 1952.
The APA resolution reaffirms that “race is a social construct with no underlying genetic or biological basis.” The same can be said about the DSM’s “diagnoses,” which also have no underlying genetic or biological basis, but are merely labels given individuals as the result of subjective assessments of their behavior – a construct that can be readily employed to racist ends.
Those labels of “mental disorders” have consequences, typically leading to “treatment” with powerful, mind-altering drugs which are known to carry serious physical and emotional risks when taking or discontinuing the drugs.
Worst of all is the stigmatizing, dehumanizing effect of labeling an individual as mentally defective with no objective, verifiable, scientific evidence – a human rights abuse CCHR has been fighting for the past five decades.
By using psychiatry’s DSM labels, the profession of psychology can be considered included in the indictment of psychiatry by CCHR’s co-founder, the late professor of psychiatry and humanitarian Thomas Szasz, M.D.: “The psychiatric profession’s most distinguishing feature is the deliberate, systematic dehumanization of man, in the name of mental health.”
“Labeling conduct as sick merely because it differs from our own is nothing more than a discriminatory act disguised as a medical judgment,” he wrote. The APA states that “traditional diagnostic methods and standards do not always capture the contextual and lived experiences of people of color.” However, until psychologists completely abandon their “diagnostic methods,” they will not have gone to the root of the systemic racism plaguing their profession and, more broadly, they will fail to truly respect and live up to the affirmation in their recent resolution that “human rights are universal and inalienable.”