Why the APA’s apology for promoting white supremacy falls short

At the end of October, the American Psychological Association released an official apology for being “complicit in contributing to systemic inequities, and [having] hurt many through racism, racial discrimination, and denigration of people of color.” The apology sought to comprehensively denounce the eminent institution’s history of promoting white supremacy within the United States and position the association to effectively remedy these harms through commitments to anti-racist psychological practices. The APA also noted Black psychologists were ignored when they tried to raise these issues over half a century ago.

The apology sought to comprehensively denounce the eminent institution’s history of promoting white supremacy within the United States.

These more than 200 Black psychologists would go on to found the country’s first and oldest independent ethnic psychological association, the Association of Black Psychologists, in 1968. As members of that association, we feel the need to speak up once again. The APA’s apology is a far cry from what is needed. We cannot expect the association to truly right its wrongs and end damaging practices in psychology when it leaves much of the ongoing harm unexamined and cherry-picks its way through history. This risks actually perpetuating the past damages the association is now trying to rectify.

While the apology details many of the past racist practices in psychology, it largely omits a key portion of this history: how the fields of psychology and psychiatry colluded with the state to suppress rights, liberties and, in many cases, political freedom. Largely, this looked like the creation and maintenance of state hospitals that often disproportionately and indefinitely confined Black people in particular. Indeed, this history led the former president-elect of ABPsi, Bobby Wright, to conclude that the discipline had historically been leveraged to wage war against Black communities.

Based on a belief that a Black person’s desire for freedom was evidence of mental illness, hospitals were built across the country to enforce social control over Black people. For instance, the Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane, the first state psychiatric hospital for Black people, forcibly institutionalized thousands of Black people in Virginia beginning in 1870. Hospital archives revealed that Black people were taken from their communities and enslaved on the belief that freedom produced mania and forced labor was an adequate treatment.

A century later, these practices were still common. For example, the Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Michigan justified the lifelong confinement of Black men through diagnoses of “protest psychosis” until it was closed in 1977. Beyond disrupting the freedom and humanity of generations of Black people, the legacy of these institutions still contributes to medical mistrust among our communities.

An inability to challenge the harm caused by such psychiatric institutions has allowed many of these practices to continue. To this day, the APA provides training accreditation to state and forensic hospitals where patients, especially Black patients, endure misdiagnoses and marginalization. Forensic psychiatric hospitals in particular still disproportionately confine Black people. Not only does this deprive Black patients of their freedom, but it also places these communities at increased risk of death or serious illness during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Further, the APA’s decision to limit its apology to the U.S. ignores how the field has been used to harm people across the world. For example, the apology refuses to acknowledge the 2015 Hoffman report, which indicted the APA for helping the Bush administration optimize torture techniques for detainees at Guantanamo Bay. These techniques traumatized hundreds of individuals while the APA largely ignored the escalation in Islamophobia and bigotry experienced by Arab, Middle Eastern and Northern African peoples in the U.S. By failing to understand that many of the people they were apologizing to identify as part of a diaspora, the APA limited its capacity to address harm done.

In recent years, we have seen Black youth suicide rates steadily increase. At the same time, the desire for culturally grounded mental health support is on the rise. Within this context, the APA’s inability to fully grapple with its history and how it continues, in its silence, to maintain racial inequity in access, misdiagnosis and maltreatment in mental health care is more than troubling.

Despite this history, the APA continues to be the primary organization for establishing codes of ethics, lobbying state licensing boards, certifying and educating and training clinicians in the field of psychology. As opposed to continuing to modify this one organization’s response to its own damage, it’s time for the APA and government bodies to recognize the authority that other psychological associations have, particularly when it comes to working with underserved populations.

We are in a moment where cultural anxieties around understanding racism’s historical and contemporary role in U.S. society is a determining factor in elections and other forms of social and civic engagement. As psychologists charged with tending to the mental health of our communities, we must hold ourselves and our peers to higher standards. As we shift away from these histories of denigrating and dehumanizing practices, we should take this opportunity to co-create the kinds of healing practices, geopolitical understandings and psycho-cultural social systems that can guide us toward a more humanizing field. This is a time of reckoning — and everyone is needed in the nonhierarchical planning of our restoration.

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