Can Psychology End Racism? No. Can We Help? Maybe.


Variations in the genome of all humans, regardless of ethnicity, are vanishingly small.  The vast preponderance of the human genome is shared by all of us—less than 0.1% of the genome varies between all humans. In other words, those genes that code for features such as skin pigmentation or hair texture and color account for only a tiny proportion of our collective genetic makeup. Genetically, “race”  does not exist as a way of distinguishing any group of humans from any other.  Likewise, sociologically,  “race” is as fungible a concept as they come.  Currently, we define “race” largely as a way of classifying people according to skin tone, but this has not always been the case.  The British physician and sexologist Havelock Ellis famously listed several dozen “races” of the British Isles, and while varying shades of white skin tone was a part of his calculus, his descriptions relied more on supposed psychological characteristics of long-lost forebears (Normans, Celts, etc).  Unsurprisingly, the Anglo-Saxons represented the best amalgam of these races, undoubtedly a descriptor that Ellis could apply to himself.

In America, of course, our obsession since at least the mid-19th century has been with proving the genetic inferiority of African and native peoples.  In our decades of expansion in the late 19th century, the weaknesses of other “races,” (such as the multi-ethnic inhabitants of the Philippines, whom we collectively labeled the “Filipino race” and who were deemed incapable of self-government) provided scientific justification for colonization.

Sadly, as the late Stephen Jay Gould’s unforgettable work, The Mismeasure of Man, reminds us, as American psychology as a science came of age it was often at the forefront of discriminatory systems of classification and worse, eugenics.  Leaders of our profession, like Terman and Yerkes—active during the great waves of migration to America from Italy, Eastern Europe, and Asia in the early 20th century—were involved in systems of classification that were used to categorize such immigrants, along with blacks and native Americans, as intellectually and socially inferior. As a profession, we do not have much to be proud of in this area, as our complicity in the eugenics movement is well known.  Psychology reflects dominant social mores, and it is relatively rare that psychology acts as an independent force to overcome such mores.

Yet examples exist.  Evelyn Hooker, acting at a time when institutionalized discrimination against gays and lesbians was ascendant, courageously started a line of scholarship that contributed towards tremendous attitudinal and legal shifts regarding those of non-dominant sexual orientations.  African American psychologists like Joseph White, whom I am privileged to know, and Francis Cecil Sumner, the first African American to obtain a PhD in psychology, championed the study of African Americans from perspectives not based on assumptions of inferiority and have contributed tremendously to a better understanding of the pernicious and enduring effects of racism in American society.

The problems that our profession must strive to address are, as we have seen, enduring and present.  Outside of political expression, attitudes towards race continue to exact a terrible toll.  Social psychologists working in the field of attribution theory have repeatedly demonstrated the effects of perceptions based on skin pigmentation or other external characteristics.  This work is of critical importance, particularly vis-à-vis the criminal justice system and the death penalty.  Attribution theorists continue to remind us that even if “race” doesn’t exist as a genetic (relatively immutable) phenomenon, racism certainly is clearly linked to attributional (relatively mutable) phenomena. Juries tend to apportion blame to victims of hate crimes according to their perception of discriminated-against groups. Law professor Steve Smith, who regularly contributes to the Register’s publications, details on an almost annual basis the persistence of racial bias in the American judicial system, including a series of Supreme Court decisions that have dealt with the undue influence of race in death penalty cases. Sadly, as you will see in Professor Smith’s upcoming article in the fall issue of the Journal of Health Service Psychology, psychologists are not immune from contributing to racial bias in death penalty decisions.

Many in the field are continuing to investigate mechanisms to alleviate the perniciousness of racism. Jack Dovidio of Yale University has long been a proponent of Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, first proposed in 1954, which posited that contact between members of different groups could assist in reducing prejudice.  Jack’s research has been key in advancing our understanding of the role of intergroup dynamics as a force to reduce racism.  A recent article by Jack and his colleagues (Dovidio, J., Love, A., Schellhaus, F. M. H. & Hewstone, M. [2017]  Reducing intergroup bias through intergroup contact…  Group Process and Interpersonal Relations, January, 2017) provides an excellent summary of progress in this field in the past 20 years. Patricia Dass-Brailsford of Georgetown University examines the role of race, victimization, and violence and works in the community to explain and provide a corrective frame for these phenomena.  The National Association of School Psychologists has a comprehensive curriculum for addressing prejudice in school children.  It is perhaps fair to say that research and clinical applications of the psychology of prejudice has never been more robust than it is today.

Progress is not linear.  The horrific events of the violent 20th century and the present resurgence of white nationalism should dispel any notion that the trajectory of human society is uniformly upward.  Although the profession has undoubtedly moved from a position of strengthening the fundamental tenets of racism to one of combatting it, misdeeds still occur.  As I write this column, it is being announced that a settlement has been reached between detainees suspected of terrorist acts and the two psychologists implicated in designing harsh interrogation methods on behalf of the CIA.

But the work of Hooker, White, Sumner and other psychologists demonstrates that there is hope, and that the profession can transcend dominant mores and help push us towards a more equitable future.  Most of us can never aspire to the greatness of these pioneers, but if we acknowledge their courage and determination and seek to emulate it, we can play at least a small part to ensure their legacy endures.

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