Support of the Association of Black Psychologists Statement

The World Mental Health Coalition (WMHC) supports the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) in rebuking the disingenuous apology by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association (both APA’s) for their role in the oppression, torture and psychic trauma of Afrikan people in the US, in Afrika and throughout the world. Whereas their statement reads: “APA was complicit in contributing to systemic inequities, and hurt many through racism, racial discrimination, and denigration of people of color,” it rings hollow with respect to the devastating impact that the practices and procedures of psychology and psychiatry had on Black people specifically.

As pointed out in the ABPsi’s response to the APA’s apology that the APA admitted that Black psychologists were ignored when they tried to raise these issues of racism and white terrorism over half a century ago, the APA fails to fully present how they propagated the dehumanizing, torturing, and murdering of Afrikan people under the guise of science within the U.S. and abroad. This can be seen from the founding of psychology in the us to the present.

Given that [Africans], Indians, and Chinese were seen as adolescent races who were in a stage of incomplete development by G. Stanley Hall, the Father of American Psychology, this set the stage for how the discipline of psychology would see said populations and how these populations would be treated within society. Dr. Hall’s ideology was consistent with Charles Darwin’s proclamation that Afrikan (negroes) were of lower races as presented in The Origins of the Species in 1859 and Francis Galton’s eugenicist position in 1869 that Afrikans (negroes) were “half witted men … who make childish, stupid and simpleton mistakes. Combined, such thinking prolonged the enslavement of Afrikan (Black) people and promoted their torture within the U.S., given that “scientific research” was used by politicians to argue for enslavement of Blacks as well as to justify their ill-treatment in the public and private spheres.

During this early phase of psychiatry within the U.S., the discipline would be established on discussion of the mental abilities. We know that white psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Cartwright posited in 1851 that enslaved Afrikans had Drapetomania, which was a “disease of the mind” that caused them to run away from the plantations. He further advanced that enslaved Afrikans on the plantations had “Dysaesthesia aethiopis,” which made them prone to avoid work and to cause mischief. He saw this disorder as being nearly universal among free Blacks and a “common occurrence on badly-governed plantations.” This last statement would serve to promote beating enslaved Afrikans profusely in order to cure them of the identified disease. Cartwright and others advanced that negroes did not have well-developed nervous systems, so that they could be beaten harder than whites. This psychiatrist supported the torture of generations of Afrikan/Black people. He and others suggested that enslavers should “beat the devil out of them [enslaved Afrikans].”

We are aware that Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina advanced that the number of deaf and dumb, blind, idiots, and insane among the negroes in the States that have changed relation between the races (so called “free states”) was seven times higher than in the slave states in the 1840s. His statements were largely influenced by reports white psychiatrists of his era made. When he served as Secretary of State (1844-1845), John C. Calhoun utilized the 1840 US Census data to further support his views that would prolong in the enslavement of Afrikan people in America. He stated in response to a white psychiatrist’s (Jarvis) report “Here is 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 give [them] guardianship and protection from mental death.” We recognize that white psychiatry and psychology provided the data that advanced the inhumane treatment of people of Afrikan descent in the US and throughout the world. This is more than being complicit with the systemic inequities but rather this makes them a major promoter of such ideology and practices of torture under the enslavement.

We note that an 1896 periodical supported by white medical professionals, the North Carolina Medical Journal researched “the effect of freedom upon the mental and physical health of the negroes of the South.” Their findings suggested that  “more congenital defects…and a harvest of mental and physical degeneration” could be found among the negroes. This serves as a message of advocacy of the mental fragility of people of Afrikan descent within the US. This position would be further advanced by Lewis Terman, the developer of the first IQ test in the US, which would support the US Sterilization Legislations (Laws) of 1913 within the US. The Stanford-Binet IQ test, developed by Terman in 1916, was used by the Human Betterment Movement to seek to rid society of people of low-grade intelligence by taking away their reproductive rights through the act of forced sterilization. Terman stated that:

High-grade or border-line deficiency… is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come… Children of this group should be segregated into separate classes… They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made into efficient workers… from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding (The Measurement of Intelligence, 1916, p. 91-92).

This eugenic ideology that was advanced by Terman would guide medical practices for years the in the US. Such ideology supported what would be called the “Mississippi Appendectomy” which occurred from the 1920s through the 1980s to Black women within the US. Black women who would seek medical treatment for abdominal discomfort or other reasons and would receive hysterectomies unbeknownst to them. This was an act genocide in that it was a way to neutralize that births within a given population. The IQ testing movement led by white psychologists and psychiatrist provided the data to support this act of genocide.

We know that testing and its corollary acts of genocide occurred with the first group tests developed in 1917 the US by Robert Yerkes called the Army Alpha and the Army Beta tests. The test, which was based on the Stanford-Binet test, was used to determine who should be infantry and who should serve as officers. The Army Alpha was for the literates and the Army Beta was for the illiterates. Although the results were used to discuss the impact of immigration on the national intelligence of the US, it was advanced that the negro soldiers was of “low grade” due to their low scores on the tests. This would support why they could not be officers and thus should be infantry fighting, many times on the frontlines, in US wars. This amounts to act of genocide in that many of the infantry would be killed early in battles.  It is important to note that Robert Yerkes was the president of the American Psychological Society in 1917 and was a part of the eugenics movement of Charles Darwin, Frances Galton and Lewis Terman. The eugenicists held that intelligence was associated with various races and that undesirable populations should be prevented from populating.

We acknowledge along with the ABPsi that both the fields of psychology and psychiatry conspired in the suppression of state rights, liberties and, in many cases, political freedom being extended to Black people. We also hold that such denial of rights disproportionately and indefinitely confined Black people at alarming rates to mental hospitals. This is evinced in the creation of the first state psychiatric hospital for Black people in 1870 called the Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane. This hospital extended the enslavement of Black people by unjustly placing them within the Virginia facility and forcing them to work because freedom caused them psychological duress. It was held that working Blacks hard would ease their psychological duress caused by freedom.

We acknowledge the truth in Dr. Bobby Wright’s conclusion that the discipline of psychology had historically been leveraged to wage war against Black communities. We further acknowledge the summary of Thomas and Sillen (1972) that white psychologists and psychiatrists held that:

  • mental health for [B]lacks was content and confinements,
  • anxiety was the result of living under the “unnatural” conditions of freedom,
  • influential medical journals portrayed Blacks as inferior to whites in anatomical development and neurological functioning,
  • the brain of Blacks was smaller and less developed that of whites,
  • they were prone to mental illness because their “minds were simple,”
  • dreams of Blacks were more juvenile and less complex than whites, and
  • “normal” Blacks were “happy-go-lucky” and content to be taken care of by Whites.

Given this analysis it seems unthinkable that APA would be in a position to interrogate and conceptualize remediation for its wrongdoing in the lives of Black people. Organizations like the ABPsi and the WMHC would best serve is such a capacity.

In the recognition of that ABPsi has over 50-year history of leading the critique, challenge and correction of the APA that has resulted in its admission of complicity in contributing to systemic inequities, and hurt many through racism, racial discrimination, and denigration of people of color we stand with ABPsi in their position that the APA apology was ingenuine. We also recognize the critical need to revisit APA’s dysfunctional hegemony concerning “norming” human psychology. It has been their hegemonic discourse that has contributed to the torture and abuse of Black and brown people within the US and around the world.  We concur with ABPsi in saying that the APA cannot remedy the harm in practice, education, criminal justice, training, and other domains caused by its complicity. The APA’s capacity to do what is good and just for Black and brown people has been proven in the long history of mistreatment, mismeasurement and misdiagnosis of Black and brown people.  The WMHC supports the ABPsi’s leadership and guidance in defining what would be appropriate and real restorative action for the atrocities of the damage to the psychological and physical well-being of Black and brown people.