State of Mind

The American Psychological Association’s Quest to Right Its Past Racial Wrongs

A Black baby doll and white baby doll
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Kate Clark Harris in memory of her parents, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in cooperation with the Northside Center for Child Development.

Welcome to State of Mind, a new section from Slate and Arizona State University dedicated to exploring mental health. Follow us on Twitter.

In 1965, Kenneth Clark’s book Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power drew attention to the psychological impacts of living conditions on the communities in America’s poorest neighborhoods. Clark wrote about how derelict properties, the failures of governments to maintain streets and publicly managed facilities, and other common features of impoverished community hurt the psychology of those who lived there, leading them to internalize the views that society more broadly did not care for the poor. Clark noted that this phenomenon took place across the country, from the urban neighborhoods of Harlem to the rural South.

Advertisement

The one observation most difficult for many of Clark’s colleagues to swallow was that he framed this in terms of racial dynamics, pointing out that the ghettos in major cities and the areas of the rural South were consistent when it came to their occupants: Black people. Further, there had been explicit, often legally binding efforts to keep Black people in those communities, through housing policies that limited where Black people could buy or rent, start businesses, and the like. Housing discrimination kept Black people in the ghettos, which damaged their mental health, among other injustices.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Clark was the first Black person to get a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University. He was a pioneer of psychology for Black people in America; he was involved in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Kerner Commission, a national advisory board created by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate increasing incidents of race riots throughout the mid-’60s, including those in Watts in Los Angeles, Division Street in Chicago, Newark, and Detroit. The Kerner Commission report was a major historical document on race relations in America, chronicling the increasing unrest brought on by segregation. “Our society is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” it read.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Among his many notable achievements, Clark was also the first Black president of the American Psychological Association. Clark and his wife, Mamie (herself a massively influential psychologist), designed the “doll studies,” which illustrated the effects of segregation on the psychological well-being and perception of racial difference in Black children; these studies contributed significantly to the findings of the harms of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. However, much of the field of psychology ignored his work and his explicit articulations of its public policy implications.

Advertisement

Clark died in 2005, Mamie in 1983. Since then, the field of psychology has changed significantly, as demonstrated by something that happened on Oct. 29: The American Psychological Association adopted an apology resolution, noting that it “was complicit in contributing to systemic inequities, and hurt many through racism, racial discrimination, and denigration of people of color, thereby falling short of its own mission to benefit society and improve lives.” The APA was in good company: A range of professional organizations have adopted resolutions or policy changes over the past few years. The American Medical Association put out such a resolution in 2020; the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Certified Planners did, too. So have the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and other bodies.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Twitter, as usual, saw some mild reactionary takes from both sides of the aisle criticizing the APA’s resolution, dismissing it as either as some sort of gesture at being “woke” or a trivial statement without substantial depth. It’s true that superficial reading of an apology resolution can produce a sort of strange feeling, the idea that this is all broad and nebulous. But the resolution comes with explicit acknowledgement of the concrete impacts of the APA’s moral failures and the lessons to draw from them. The APA notes that its failure to acknowledge the impacts of social environments, economic inequality, and even the representations used in teaching on the psychology of Black children meant that education policy was not informed about these consequences for decades. The deleterious psychological effects explored and documented by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, and the programs in social and developmental psychology that came afterward, continued for generations when they could have been addressed as early as Brown v. Board of Education itself.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The APA resolution recognizes the institution’s failure to take work by the Clarks and many others with the moral seriousness it deserved, and offers a promise to do better. This is not an attempt to erase the past; it’s an effort to create a better future. The resolution explicitly notes that existing work by psychologists can play a role in addressing racism in education, the carceral system, health care, and other areas. It also acknowledges that historically, the APA has often failed to address racist implications of its policies.

For instance, through the late 20th century, the APA was especially active in setting education policy. The APA apology statement notes that it  “failed to take concerted action in response to calls from Black psychologists … for an end to the misuse of testing and assessment practices (including standardized assessments) and interventions in education and the workplace developed by psychologists and others that perpetuated racial equality.” This statement comes with five citations, several of which are recently published retrospective criticisms.

Advertisement
Advertisement

One is, importantly, not. It’s an article published in 1978 by Robert Williams and Horace Mitchell. Williams and Mitchell were writing about the fact that it had been 10 years since the Association of Black Psychologists, which they led, had called for a moratorium on standardized testing in ’68 because of serious worries that such assessments had bias against Black students. The contemporary retrospective APA pieces published alongside the apology note that the association completely ignored Williams and Mitchell and advocated for standardized assessments in work and education for decades (including through the period of “No Child Left Behind” policy in the 2000s). Further, it turns out Williams and Mitchell were right about the racial bias and the serious deleterious impact on Black children.

Advertisement
Advertisement

That’s notable. While politicians may steer the policy at a very high level, the details of implementation are often built out of the recommendations of experts. Policies like No Child Left Behind were closely informed in their implementation by experts. This is where the policy positions of the APA matter, and where the APA reforms will hopefully have some positive results.

Perhaps the most notable part of the apology is that the APA also rolled out a resolution calling for a range of policy changes and reviews. These include serious changes in standardized test scores and assessment metrics in elementary and secondary education (the focus of Williams and Mitchell) and resource allocation to schools in impoverished, disproportionately Black communities (the focus of Clark). The scope of these changes go wider (including, for instance, discussion of the impact of “model minority” myths on Asian and Pacific Islander children), informed by a broader range of psychological research.

Advertisement

The measures that the APA is implementing are extensive; they include expanding research into the potential applications of psychology to improving outcomes in public policy (explicitly citing education criminal justice reforms). Interestingly, though, they also include an increased explicit emphasis on particular changes in social scientific methodology in addressing race. These changes note, for example, that Black children with developmental disabilities are often misdiagnosed (or not diagnosed at all) as a result of a combination of racial bias in diagnostic mechanisms, the biases of diagnosing medical practitioners, and/or kids’ limited access to appropriate medical information and resources. This results in many Black children with developmental disabilities being subjected to disciplinary action in school when they should instead be given access to certain resources (resources that are much more often made available to white students). These failures stem from shortcomings in the community of professional psychologists. That community did not change its professional standards in light of the best available evidence; it did not change diagnostic tools that failed to catch developmental disabilities in Black kids or provide practical tools to educators and school administrators to address those disabilities. These failures have downstream impacts: Black children are disciplined more often and more harshly; they are subjected to harsher evaluations and therefore receive less access to even publicly available resources over the long term; they are more likely to be subjected to the carceral system, and at a much earlier age, rather than being given the accommodation appropriate for children with developmental disabilities.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The APA’s apology resolution, and other professional associations’ resolutions, are not empty gestures but rather attempts to grapple with the moral responsibilities of those associations to get their policy recommendations right, and to improve the lots of those who are socially vulnerable, those whom public policy either (at best) fails to attend to or (at worst) outright harms. Black people have worse health outcomes across the board; to the extent that the failures of the psychological profession create and exacerbate such conditions, the APA is looking to change them. Mental health is not the only problem; there are failures to address disturbing mortality rates among Black women at childbirth and the higher rates of diabetes and heart disease among Black people.

Advertisement

Thanks to Ken and Mamie Clark and many other pioneers in psychology, we have a very good understanding of the deleterious impacts of racism on the mental health of Black people. With this good understanding, it is morally incumbent that professional psychology make meaningful changes. Whether the APA follows through on the plans that it has laid out in resolutions issued over the past several years will have to be seen; sometimes people make commitments and don’t follow through. Still, an instrumental step to solving these problems is acknowledging them, and showing understanding of how things can be handled differently; this is a step in the right direction.

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

Advertisement