Racial Inequality in the Field of Psychology

Racial Inequality in Psychology's Origins:

          "Few people are aware that the origins of the discipline of psychology were largely racist, in that many academic notables were invested in (mis)using science to prove that White people were morally and intellectually superior (Guthrie, 1976). Many of these individuals were eugenicists as well; they advocated for a social agenda that included suppressing the number of children born to those they deemed less fit. This should not be too surprising, given the era during which the discipline of psychology evolved — a time when people of color were considered inferior in Western society as a matter of common knowledge and law." - Monnica Williams, PhD, Psychology's Hidden History: Racist Roots and Poison Fruits

Three Key Types of "Scientific Explanations" in Support of Racial Discrimination

  1.   Claims that there are biological dangers involved in interracial intimate relationship

  2.   Claims that prejudice is a natural and even essential phenomenon for the evolutionary process to be            effective by ensuring the "integrity" of gene pools

  3.    Claims that some groups are systematically lesser than others in important cognitive and behavioral traits

Such arguments are still being used and published in psychology today. For example, see a discussion of a recently retracted paper that argued some groups are systematically lesser than others in IQ and morals.

Tracing Racial Inequality in Psychology's Past through its Present

      "The use of psychological concepts and data to promote ideas of an enduring racial hierarchy dates from the late 1800s and has continued to the present. The history of scientific racism in psychology is intertwined with broader debates, anxieties, and political issues in American society. With the rise of intelligence testing, joined with ideas of eugenic progress and dysgenic reproduction,psychological concepts and data came to play an important role in naturalizing racial inequality. Although racial comparisons were not the primary concern of most early mental testing, results were employed to justify beliefs regarding Black “educability” and the dangers of Southern and Eastern European immigration. Mainstream American psychology became increasingly liberal and anti-racist in the late 1930s and after World War II. However, scientific racism did not disappear and under went renewal during the civil rights era and again during the 1970s and 1990s, Intelligence test scores were a primary weapon in attempts to preserve segregated schools and later to justify economic inequality. In the case of Henry Garrett, Arthur Jensen, and Philippe Rushton, their work included active, public promotion of their ideas of enduring racial differences, and involvement with publications and groups under control of racial extremists and neo-Nazis. Despite 100 years of strong critiques of scientific racism, a small but active group of psychologists helped revive vicious 19th-century claims regarding Black intelligence, brain size, morality, criminality, and sexuality, presented as detached scientific facts. These new claims were used in popular campaigns that aimed to eliminate government programs, promote racial separation, and increase immigration restriction. This troubling history raises important ethical questions for the discipline." - Andrew Winston, PhD., Scientific Racism and North American Psychology

Racial Inequalities in Who is Doing & Leading Psychology

     While the above focuses on how the field of psychology has contributed to racism, it is important to remember who is doing this work - meaning, who is getting to help steer the ship of psychological research. Racial inequalities in the identities of journal editors and authors have been documented across areas of psychology: See Racial Inequality in Psychological Research: Trends of the Past and Recommendations for the Future

Interested in ways to change the field?

Check out this excellent manuscript in American Psychologist:​

Upending Racism in Psychological Science: Strategies to Change How Science is Conducted, Reported, Reviewed & Disseminated and this manuscript in Perspectives in Psychological Sciences: The Pandemic as a Portal: Reimagining Psychological Sciences as Truly Open and Inclusive.

For more reading on the topic of racism in psychology, check out the following

Tucker - The Racist Past of the American Psychology Establishment

Gordon-Achebe et al -  Origins of Racism in American Medicine and Psychiatry

Gelman - RA Fisher and the Science of Hatred

Fernando - Institutional Racism in Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology

Cleather - Is Statistics Racist?