Scientific research shows Blacks are more likely than Whites to be labeled with a mental disorder related to disruptive, defiant, or psychotic behavior, to be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility, and to be physically, mechanically, or chemically restrained, and for a longer time.
A largely unrecognized, but major part of Black history is the prime role of psychiatrists and psychologists in promoting and sustaining so-called “scientific racism” in America. The term “scientific racism” refers to the use of false or quack science to supposedly prove racial inferiority and so to supposedly justify racial inequality and discrimination. This racism is still ingrained in the mental health system, as admitted by leading psychiatric and psychological associations and as found in the experiences of Blacks in the mental health system today. “The legacy of ‘scientific racism,’ heavily promoted for more than 200 years by American psychiatrists and psychologists, is still pervasive and entrenched in the U.S. mental health system and throughout our society today,” said Anne Goedeke, president of the National Affairs Office of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR). “African Americans should be aware of who instigated and perpetuated this racism.”
In 2021, the American Psychiatric Association detailed psychiatrists’ long history of promoting “scientific racism,” admitting that “these appalling past actions, as well as their harmful effects, are ingrained in the structure of psychiatric practice and continue to harm…psychological well-being even today.”
That same year, the American Psychological Association laid out the details of “the role of psychology…in promoting, perpetuating, and failing to challenge racism, and the harms that have been inflicted on communities of color as a result.”
The harm by psychiatry and psychology started with Dr. Benjamin Rush, the slave-owning “father of American psychiatry,” who claimed in 1792 that black skin was caused by a disease that he called “negritude” and that Blacks needed to be segregated to prevent them from infecting others. In so doing, he created the first false-science justification for racism.
Just before the Civil War, psychologist Samuel Cartwright, who had apprenticed with Benjamin Rush, invented a racist mental illness that he claimed caused slaves to have an uncontrollable urge to escape. The treatment was “whipping the devil out of them.”
In the years following the Civil War, English psychologist Francis Galton, who was a cousin of Charles Darwin, applied Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” to humans and came up with the idea of racial purification, which he called “eugenics.” This pseudoscience led people to believe that for the good of the country, those with “undesirable” traits could be subjected to forced birth control and sterilization to prevent them from having children.
In the U.S., psychiatrists and psychologists in the American mental health movement from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s adopted and heavily promoted the false science of eugenics, actively spreading racist ideas of Black inferiority and the need for segregation. More than half of the American Psychological Association presidents between 1892 and 1947 also had leadership positions in eugenics organizations. Courses on eugenics were offered by psychiatrists and psychologists at America’s leading universities, leading the public to believe that laws mandating racial segregation were supported by science.
Psychologists assumed a particularly central role in the eugenics movement throughout the 1900s with their use of culturally biased intelligence testing that supposedly proved African Americans possessed lower IQs.
Starting in the 1950s, African Americans were used in unethical psychosurgery and drug experiments conducted by psychiatrists and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the country’s top psychiatric research facility.
In the 1960s, psychiatrists targeted African Americans by inventing a new mental illness, “protest psychosis,” to portray Blacks participating in the Civil Rights movement as aggressive and mentally ill. In psychiatric journals, images of angry Black men or African tribal symbols were used in ads to sell powerful antipsychotic drugs. Today, African Americans are still disproportionately diagnosed with psychosis and disproportionately prescribed antipsychotic drugs.
In the second half of the 20th century, psychologists continued to promote racist, false-science theories. As the American Psychological Association admitted, “From the 1960s on, psychologists gave explicit assistance to, and participated in racial extremist, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi groups….”
The legacy of “scientific racism” is still prevalent today in the mental health system. Government data reveals that African Americans receive disproportionately more diagnoses of mental disorders related to disruptive, defiant, and psychotic behavior, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Blacks are overly prescribed antipsychotic drugs, with Black men more likely to be prescribed excessive doses of them.
African American children are disproportionately diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed stimulant drugs that the FDA warns can lead to abuse, addiction and overdose. African American children are also disproportionately diagnosed with conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
Blacks are more likely than Whites to be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility and more likely to be physically, mechanically, or chemically restrained there and for a longer time. As a human rights organization and mental health industry watchdog, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights has exposed and campaigned against racism and racial abuse in the mental health system since CCHR’s inception in 1969. CCHR has worked with the NAACP since 2003 in exposing the stigmatizing labeling and drugging of African American children and, with Rev. Fred Shaw of CCHR’s Task Force Against Racism and Modern-Day Eugenics, obtaining three national NAACP resolutions on these issues.