Weaponizing psychology against minorities has been (and remains) a troubling trend. Psychology, and especially early psychology, has historically viewed the working of the mind and the study of behavior and emotion through the lens of colonization, weaponized homogeneity, control, and whiteness. Some scholars work hard to acknowledge and correct their bias and build more inclusive research. Pickren and Rutherford, for example, tried to include a more diverse, global perspective on psychology’s history in their book A History of Modern Psychology in Context, yet still failed to fully convey the significance of the harm caused to minorities as psychology developed into a science. Guthrie offered a more unflinching look at the harm psychology has done to minorities, and specifically to Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), in his work Even the Rat was White. Whether the harm perpetuated against minorities was the psychological field’s early push for pseudoscience (such as Gall’s phrenology), unethical, undisclosed experimentation on Black people’s minds and bodies (like the Tuskegee syphilis study), or the more recent ways the field of psychology has been complicit in or directly benefited from systemic racism, the history is clear: psychology has been a consistent perpetuator of harm against the most vulnerable populations globally.
What are some of the ways Black and Indigenous people of color have been harmed by psychology?
One example of continuing harm being perpetuated against Black and Indigenous people of color is the study of the psychology of racism itself. Searching any university library or Google Scholar for studies about the psychology of racism largely provides a list of studies being done that center white people and the continued acts of racism by white people against other groups. To find studies being done that question and explore this racism being perpetuated by psychological science against the BIPOC population requires refined search terms plus word of mouth guidance, often from Black scholars. This in itself perpetuates racism, as it necessitates a continuation of Black and Indigenous people performing most of the mental labor to parse their own mistreatment at the hands of white people, while also carrying the mental and emotional load of educating white people on where and how to find scholarly works from BIPOC academics. The American Psychological Association has paid lip service to the idea of promoting more BIPOC scholars twice so far. First, when it partnered with the United Nations in 1997 to create a psychology and racism mini convention (ERCA), then again when it sent out its famed letter of apology for its history of racism. However, white scholars still dominate its recommended studies and public outreach. Additionally, the 2021 letter of apology from the APA didn’t go far enough to address the issue and recommend concrete steps going forward.
Unsurprisingly, some of the more egregious acts of racism in psychological science happened in the United States. Certainly, the United States’ culture of individualism has contributed to its heinous treatment of anyone who wasn’t white. However, the way that the American individualistic mindset combined with the colonization mentality brought over from Europe and the psychological practice of othering anyone different was a perfect storm that pushed racism in psychology over the edge and created more opportunities for harm. Pickren and Rutherford speak of the racist impact of Social Darwinism, a racist and ableist practice which led to the rise of intelligence testing–one psychology-backed means to ensure that the poor, the Black, the disabled, and the indigenous stayed othered and poor, conveniently attributing their status to nature and evolution rather than to white oppression of minorities. In fact, racism itself was an American invention – Europeans, while still operating from a colonizer mindset, saw people as their ethnicity, not their race. As we know, the United States continued to leverage racist policies and practices against BIPOC people for many years, even serving as a model for Hitler’s regime. Guthrie referred to these practices as psychometric racism.
Psychologists weren’t limiting themselves to racism based on skin color and faulty intelligence tests administered with a bias toward whiteness, however. They also continued to find ways to utilize eugenics-forward practices like phrenology (especially during the period where white Americans overtly enslaved Black people), going so far as to institutionalize the practice of eugenics at the Carnegie Institute. We see the echoes of this blatant eugenicist behavior even to this day in organizations like Autism Speaks (working to eradicate autistics) and in the anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and anti-LGBTQ laws and policies written by conservative and religious think tanks like Alliance Defending Freedom and enacted by unscrupulous, white supremacist politicians. These think tanks and politicians are even trying to bring back forced sterilization of the “undesirables” as if America had time-traveled backwards to 1904.
In examining the history of racism in psychology we can’t forget the physical abuses perpetuated onto Black and Indigenous bodies. An infamous incident is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, but psychologists and medical doctors also used Black bodies to experiment on for new surgical techniques, often without anesthesia thanks to the eugenics of psychology advancing the myth that Black bodies feel less pain. Of the texts explored for this post, Guthrie’s book Even the Rat Was White was by far the more sobering in regards to the torment psychology fomented against Black and Indigenous people of color. So much so that I will end this section with the comment that to discuss it in too much detail as a white, female scholar, generates a feeling that I am participating in a kind of public lynching, so I will move on to the next section and simply suggest you explore Guthrie’s work and discover for yourselves the depths to which white psychologists sunk.
How have these acts of weaponized psychology continued to exact consequences on these populations?
The ways in which psychology’s legacy of racism continues to inform laws and practices and harm the BIPOC population are infinite. Perhaps the most egregious harms that continue today that were generated from psychology’s eugenicist, racist practices are financial and carceral. Schools in areas deemed to be majority Black or Indigenous are underfunded and in disrepair. In an America where the school system is divided into school pipelines that are designed to lead to someone’s “place” in society, there are several simultaneous methods of harm continuing to occur. This divide in school systems is both racist and classist. In mostly white areas schools can either be an “elite” private school designed to churn out the .01% to 1%, “elite” public schools designed to churn out Ivy League graduates who become CEOs and captains of industry, or regular public schools designed to churn out cogs in the machine who won’t question the capitalist world of work. In mostly minority areas you have schools that are more obviously part of the school to prison pipeline, designed to rob minorities and the poor of generational wealth. Once BIPOC folks are out of school they are then faced with wage disparities, micro-aggressions at work, limited opportunities for promotion or advancement unless they meet a racist criteria of super-excellence that few white people are ever asked to meet (see Figure 1 below for a recent example of this in the burden of excellence placed on Judge Katanji Brown Jackson). Continuing the racist financial punishment enabled by psychology’s continued influence on work and capitalism, BIPOC folks are less likely to receive a correct appraisal for their home before selling, less likely to be approved for loans that could advance their business, and more likely to incur added health costs due to medical racism at the point of care. These financial examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are also carceral consequences for being BIPOC that are a legacy of psychology’s racist practices. These include the myth: “Black children mature faster” which is a holdover from days of enslavement. This erroneous belief doesn’t just get Black teenagers and Black men incarcerated for minor infractions at five times the rate of whites, separating them from home, family, and job opportunities. It also perpetuates the erroneous idea that Black families are unstable, which increases the rate at which Black (and Indigenous) children are victims of the carceral practice of CPS (Child Protective Services) intervention, foster care and juvenile detention placement, and involuntary adoption. Additionally, when laws and societal norms change, the legacy of racism perpetuated by psychology and the medical field in general prevents Black and Indigenous people from benefiting. An excellent example is that of changing marijuana laws. As marijuana becomes fully legal or conditionally legal in many states across the Unites States, BIPOC people who were jailed for substance-related infractions are not being released in response. Not only are BIPOC folks remaining incarcerated for something that is no longer illegal, white people are using this liminal time between legalization and freedom for prior offenders to build entire marijuana empires and corner the market on what was once a source of off-the-books upward mobility for a disenfranchised population.
How can these acts of harm be repaired?
It will take more than one generation to repair the harm perpetuated by psychology and psychology-informed systems against BIPOC folks. However, there are certainly some starting points that will move repairs further along. First, release all BIPOC folks currently in jail for non-violent crimes such as drug offenses in every state (not just where marijuana is legal already). Release them with an expunged record. Second, amend any laws that prevent non-violent felons from voting. Third, enact reparations. Reparations for Black people who were born in the States could be easily offered at no increase to taxes by diverting funds from the bloated military budget. These reparations should also be applied to Indigenous people who have lost generations to residential schools and poor conditions on reservation land. Fourth, re-train all medical personnel – not just physicians – to understand that there is no physiological difference in Black, Brown, or White bodies or in how they feel pain. Pay special attention to the psychological training of OBGYNs to address the high mortality rate of Black mothers giving birth in the US. This could be easily offered for free or low cost to make it accessible if we tax churches–institutions which have often been complicit in the harm done to BIPOC communities. Fifth, offer tax credits for corporations that have at least 33% Black, Latine, and Indigenous representation on their Board and employed at levels above the title of manager. Concurrently, require new training in management classes and college courses, taught by BIPOC educators, that provide resources for eliminating bias at work. I recognize that we currently ask BIPOC folks to carry too much of the burden of educational labor on a one-on-one level for white folks, however; it would be hard to trust that any white person leading these classes was offering correct, unbiased information.
These five steps will be a drop in the bucket of what’s needed. Also on the list of changes is a tougher challenge: undoing the indoctrination into white supremacy culture, both overt and covert, that schools, churches, white parents, and workplaces in America perpetuate onto the white population. This is bolstered not just by existing systems of power but also by the bombardment with propaganda and conspiracy theories on mainstream media outlets and social media. This final step can only truly be completed by white people taking on the task to call in and call out their own for all levels of racism.
Note: based on concepts I learned in class with the amazing Dr. Konjit Page. as always, I modified my paper for this blog. book links are affiliate links.
Apology to People of Color for APA’s Role in Promoting, Perpetuating, and Failing to Challenge Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Human Hierarchy in U.S. (2021). American Psychological Association.
Guthrie, R. (2003). Even the Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology (Allyn & Bacon Classics Edition) (2 ed.). Pearson.
Lang, N. (2021). A Hate Group Is Reportedly Behind 2021’s Dangerous Wave of Anti-Trans Bills. https://www.them.us/story/hate-group-reportedly-behind-2021-anti-trans-bills
Nellis, A. (2021). The color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons. The Sentencing Project. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/
Pickren, W., & Rutherford, A. (2010). A History of Modern Psychology in Context (1 ed.). Wiley.