Our 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 roles in the oppression, torture and psychic trauma of Afrikan people in the U.S., 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 (heretofore Afrikans) specifically.

As pointed out in the ABPsi’s response to the APA’s apology, 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 and psychiatry in the United States to the present.

Given that Afrikans, Indians, and Chinese were seen as adolescent races who were in a stage of incomplete development by G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer 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 Afrikans were of lower races as presented in The Origins of the Species in 1859 and Francis Galton’s eugenicist position in 1869 that Afrikans were “half-witted men … who make childish, stupid and simpleton mistakes. Combined, such thinking prolonged the enslavement of Afrikan people and promoted their torture within the U.S.  Politicians used racialized “scientific research” to argue for enslavement of Blacks as well as to justify their ill-treatment in the public and private spheres.

In 1792, Dr. Benjamin Rush, considered the father of American psychiatry, proclaimed that Blackness was actually a skin disease he called negritude, for which the cure was to turn the skin of Black people “back” to white. It was his belief that white was the original color of the skin of Afrikans per his surmise from seeing some Black people with vitiligo. Vitiligo is a condition by which the skin pigment is lost leaving one with whitish patches in their skin. It is important to note that Dr. Rush conceptualized white as the normative and others as diminishment of the white standard. This racist, elitist position was endemic within the behavioral sciences and, as seen in an influential signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776, his ideology of white superiority was widespread within the founding beliefs and values of the U.S.

Dr. Samuel Cartwright, who apprenticed under Dr. Rush, went further to posit, in 1851, that enslaved Afrikans had “disease of the mind” he called drapetomania, which caused them to run away from the plantations. He further advanced that enslaved Afrikans, on 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 Afrikans 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 Afrikans by suggesting that their not wanting to be a slave was an aberration or a disease, and enslavers should “beat the devil out of them.” Neither APA denounced him.

At the same time, a founder of the [psychiatric] APA and white psychiatrist, Dr. John Minson Galt, posited that Blacks would probably not need psychiatric services, as insanity was a disease of “civilized” people and not of the “primitive” Africans and their descendants. Another founder, Dr. Francis Stribling from western Virginia, felt admitting Black patients to his hospital was repugnant but saw no contradiction in permitting enslaved Blacks to move about his hospital to serve well-to-do white patients. The APA challenged neither Dr. Galt’s adamant refusal of Black patients nor the vast segregation practices he would influence. As a result, psychiatric hospitals in the first half of the 19th century came to have the shameful distinction of being some of America’s first officially segregated institutions.

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 1840’s. 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 U.S. Census data to further support his views that would prolong the enslavement of Afrikan people in America. He stated, in response to white physician and biostatistician, Dr. Edward 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 promoted the inhumane treatment of people of Afrikan descent in the U.S. and throughout the world. This is more than being complicit with the systemic inequities but makes them a major promoter of such ideology and practice of torture under the enslavement.

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 U.S. This position would be further advanced by Lewis Terman, the developer of the first IQ test in the U.S., which would support the U.S. Sterilization Legislations (Laws) of 1913 within the U.S. 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 in the U.S. Such ideology supported what would be called the “Mississippi Appendectomy” which occurred from the 1920’s through the 1980’s to Black women within the U.S. Black women who would seek medical treatment for abdominal discomfort or other reasons and would receive hysterectomies unbeknownst to them. This was a genocidal act, in that it would terminate future births within a given population. The IQ testing movement led by white psychologists and psychiatrists provided the data to support this act of genocide.

We know that testing and its corollary acts of genocide occurred with the first group of tests developed in 1917 in the U.S. 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 U.S., it was advanced that the negro soldiers were of “low grade” because of their low scores on the tests. This would support why they could not be officers and thus should be infantry, many times on the frontlines of U.S. wars. Again, this amounts to a genocidal act, 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 freedoms 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 situation 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, which freedom caused.

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 Blacks 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 the two APA’s would be in a position to interrogate and conceptualize remediation for its wrongdoings in the lives of Black people. Organizations like the ABPsi (and, aspiringly, the WMHC) would better serve in such a capacity.

In the recognition that the ABPsi has over a 50-year history of leading the critique, challenge, and correction of the APA in its complicity with contributing to systemic inequities, and hurt many through racism, racial discrimination, and the denigration of people of color, the WMHC stands with the ABPsi in their position that the APA’s apologies are too superficial to be genuine. The WMHC also recognizes the critical need to revisit the two APA’s dysfunctional hegemony concerning “norming” human psychology with a continued inability to correct such fundamental and foundational flaws. Their hegemonic discourse has contributed to the torture and abuse of Black and Brown people within the U.S. and around the world, and, until this is addressed head on, there can be no change to the core. We concur with the ABPsi in saying that the APA cannot remedy the harm in practice, education, criminal justice, training, and other domains as it continues to be complicit. The APA’s capacity to do what is good and just for Black and Brown people has been proven in its long history to lead in the mistreatment, mismeasurement, and misdiagnosis of Black and Brown people. They can do better, but they are not. Therefore, the WMHC supports the ABPsi’s leadership and guidance in defining what would be appropriate and truly restorative regarding the atrocities and the damage to the psychological and physical well-being of Black and Brown people.

Kevin Washington, Ph.D. (Mwata Kairi Sankara), Vice President, World Mental Health Coalition, and Past President, Association of Black Psychologists

Bandy X. Lee, M.D., M.Div., President, World Mental Health Coalition