Jeffrey Gardere, PhD
The lack of African-American males graduating with doctorates from psychology programs continues to be both alarming and disappointing. The most recent data as reported in Doctorate Recipients from U.S. universities indicated that while European-Americans (whites) earned 76% of psychology PhDs, only 5.8% of psychology PhDs were awarded to black students, and of that 5.8%, 68% percent were awarded to black females, demonstrating that black males are woefully under-represented as students in psychology graduate schools (APA Center for Workforce Studies, 2010). While statistics are slightly better for doctorates in Counseling Education or Counseling and Guidance, 16% and in Counseling Psychology 9.7% (Bhat, Pillay, Hudson, 2012, using 2008 data), numbers continue to be disproportionately low for minorities in general, and black males in particular.
This lack of penetrance, which is also reflected in related fields such as psychiatry and counseling, not only speaks to limits in attainment of professional degrees for blacks, especially black males, but also signal potentially widespread and damaging effects on black people in general, due to the lack of culturally sensitive and culturally competent mental health treatment options. This is especially problematic given that according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2009-2010 African-Americans were 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites (Centers for Disease Control Office of Minority Services, 2012). However, African-Americans are consistently less likely than European-Americans to seek psychotherapy services (Thompson, Bazile & Akbar, 2004).
There is no doubt that the cost of treatment and lack of insurance are barriers to African-Americans seeking mental health treatment. But an overriding and pervasive issue is the stigma that mental illness and mental health treatment have in the black community. Traditionally blacks have turned to their churches or other houses of worship to deal with emotional or psychological issues instead of going to mental health providers. In the black community mental illness is generally viewed as a weakness instead of a condition. Another factor which keeps blacks from treatment is the distrust of doctors, the majority of whom are white or non-black. While much of this distrust stems from the black experience with slavery, racism, and poverty, another factor for this distrust is a result of the horrific Tuskegee Study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service to clandestinely study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African-American men in Alabama. As we all now know, the study was conducted without the benefit of patients’ informed consent (CDC, 2013).
Though the Tuskegee Study ended more than 40 years ago, discrimination and racism in health care continue to exist today. For example, studies have shown that even when minorities gain access to the health care system and even when there is a comparable ability to pay for services, they are less likely than whites to receive surgical or other therapies (American Nurses Association, 1998). These types of practices further fuel the distrust that some blacks carry towards the overwhelmingly white medical establishment.
The most frustrating aspect of the disparities in health care is that even with the best of intentions the medical establishment will continue to fail in providing equal health care to diverse populations unless there is acknowledgement of unconscious or institutional racism leading to a lack of cultural sensitivity and cultural competence. Thankfully, wholesale efforts have now been undertaken in medicine, academia and politics to address health disparities and incorporate culturally sensitive and competent practices in order to increase patient participation, adherence and better health outcomes (Betancourt, Green, Carrillo & Park, 2005). With regard to mental health services in particular, since the 1980’s there has been an expanding push in the education and training of student and professional health providers to develop accurate, culturally sensitive and competent practices (Office of Minority Health U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2002).
Though these efforts have certainly eased the distrust of blacks and have resulted in more equal medical care, studies continue to show that blacks are much more trusting of black treatment professionals, in part because blacks typically view psychologists as older white men who are insensitive to the economic realities of their lives (Thompson, et al., 2004). In “Just Be Straight with Me: An Exploration of Black Patient Experiences in Initial Mental Health Encounters” (Earl, Algeria, Mendieta, & Linhart, 2011), the authors found that when black patients were treated by black providers, they reported positive treatment outcomes. In addition, black patients were more likely to remain in care and comply with their treatment plan when they were treated by black professionals (Cooper-Patrick et al., 1999; LaVeist & Nuru-Jeter, 2002; LaVeist, Nuru-Jeter, & Jones, 2003) because “they felt more accepted, understood, and perceived the provider to be more culturally sensitive” (Thompson & Alexander, 2006).
While black patients may begin to shed the aforementioned stigmas of mental illness and treatment and even gain more trust in the general medical establishment by seeking out and being treated by black mental health professionals, the reality is that the present shortage of black psychologists often does not allow this treatment choice. It should also be noted that when psychology researchers promote the study and implementation of cultural sensitive and cultural competent approaches to medical and mental health treatment (Buki, 2007), the underrepresentation of black students, particularly black males in graduate psychology and counseling programs, undermines effective research in this area. Deleterious consequences are therefore incurred not only to the health status of black populations in general, but also to the entire enterprise of ethnic minority health research and the medical, psychological and financial health of black students whose pathways to doctoral degrees in these disciplines are stymied by systematic inequities in society.
Though this article will center on the plight of the black male students whose admissions numbers are less than black female students, it should be kept in mind that African-American females are also underrepresented in graduate student admissions, and they have similar struggles. Strategies to increase black male admission to graduate schools must also be adapted for female black students.
Barriers to Entering Psychology Programs
The High Cost of College and Graduate School
The high cost of college and graduate education is a major barrier to black student entry into graduate psychology and counseling programs. For the 2011–12 academic year, annual current dollar prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board were estimated at $14,300 at public institutions, $37,800 at private nonprofit institutions, and $23,300 at private for-profit institutions. Between 2001–02 and 2011–12, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 40 percent, and prices at private nonprofit institutions rose 28 percent, after adjustment for inflation (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013, Digest of Education Statistics, 2012). For 2008-2009 the median doctoral tuition for resident students in PhD programs per year was $8,068, while resident PsyD students had a median tuition cost of $21,900 (Finno, Wicherski & Kohout, 2010). The costs of college and graduate school, budget cuts and economic conditions including the recent recession make it harder for families regardless of race to pay for college. For black families where poverty rates are at 27.4 percent compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011), the financial cost of college and graduate school is especially prohibitive.
Lack of Scholarships and the Burden of School Loans
Scholarships to help offset these educational costs are much harder to come by than in the past. Since this author attended college and graduate school in the 70’s and 80’s, foundations, corporations, state governments and colleges themselves have reduced their support of providers of scholarships, and programs have been reduced or canceled outright (Kadden, 2009). Of course federal loans are available to assist students, but quite frankly in a climate where students are not sure of their return on investment (ROI) versus their loan burden upon graduation, many black students and their families who are in poverty are often afraid to take on this financial aid burden, being uncertain whether a career as a psychologist may be worth the financial sacrifice. Also given their previous experiences as victims of prejudice, they often anticipate an inequity in their future employment, career trajectories and salaries as compared to their white counterparts, making their ROI and decision to take on a significant loan burden even more difficult. Adding to this sense of unease are recent trends that both curtail and in certain respects vilify affirmative action programs that had in the past assisted numerous minority students.
Dwindling Affirmative Action Programs
Between 1996 and 1998 the states of California and Texas passed anti-affirmative action legislation regarding college and university admissions. This has had a trickle-over effect and the states of Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida and Georgia have followed suit. Other states are now contemplating anti-affirmative action legislation and many colleges and universities are independently making the decision eliminate race as one of the criteria for admission. These educational opportunity programs have been assailed and dismantled by legislators, voters and academic officials who mistakenly believe that racism and racial inequities no longer exist and therefore there is no need for affirmative action. But even more insidious is the reverse discrimination argument which has been used as a covert political hammer by some to eliminate affirmative action by asserting race considerations resulted in admission spaces being taken away from more qualified white students and given to less qualified black students (Feltzer, 1993). No matter which side of the argument one takes, if race-neutral college admissions policies are mandated nationwide, it is predicted that minority representation at the most selective four-year institutions will decrease by 10 percent (Howell, 2010).
This in light of the fact that it already may be more difficult to gain entrance into graduate programs in psychology, regardless of race, in comparison to entrance into medical or law school. Though many medical or law schools average over 100 slots for admission, the average graduate program is much smaller, making the application process much more competitive for students who wish to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. It is only common sense then that the elimination of affirmative action for psychology graduate programs that utilized them would eventually result in lower attendance by black students, whose attendance in these programs is already quite low.
Poor Performance on Standardized Exams
The relative absence of black doctoral-level psychologists as compared to whites creates a vicious cycle perpetuating the lack of exposure of young African-Americans to professional mentors and role models.
Black students traditionally have done poorly on standardized exams. The American black student scores below 75 percent of American whites on most standardized tests (Jenks & Stewart, 1998). Contributing factors are inconclusive but a culture of poverty, including poor or inadequate schools, an overall lack of academic confidence and self-esteem as a result of being treated as a second class citizen by society, and test bias all may play a role. Regardless, in order to get into many graduate schools, students are required to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Unfortunately, as a group, African-American males and females score relatively poorly on the GRE. On the verbal reasoning subtest in 2013-2014, those US citizen test takers declaring an ethnic identity of black achieved a mean score of 147.6, as compared to a total mean score of 153.0. For the quantitative and analytical subtests, mean black scores were 143.7 and 3.3 respectively, compared with overall means of 150.1 and 3.8. It is also important to note that self-identifying blacks represented only 7% of all GRE test-takers during this period (24,446 of 336,367 US citizen takers, Educational Testing Service, 2014). Again, with many programs a low score on the GRE may disqualify one from entering a psychology or counseling graduate program, even if there is a very high GPA and research experience. Therefore black students who traditionally test poorly are likely disproportionately and negatively impacted by use of standardized examinations.
Lack of Mentoring and Improper Guidance of Black Students
The relative absence of black doctoral-level psychologists as compared to whites creates a vicious cycle perpetuating the lack of exposure of young African-Americans to professional mentors and role models. Aspiring students lack both informal knowledge regarding the educative process leading to the doctorate but also technical knowledge, such as accurate information regarding professional salaries that might otherwise lead to an understanding that psychologists can earn a healthy financial living while engaged in helping others. The lack of appropriate role models is often compounded by inaccurate or deficient academic counseling in high schools and colleges, where African-American students may be discouraged from aspiring to doctoral degrees.
The lack of mentoring and proper guidance continues to be a problem even if the black student is able to progress to graduate school. Though there are non-black professors who can mentor black students, they may lack cultural sensitivity and competence which may lead the student’s legitimate perceptions of bias being dismissed or undervalued. This can lead to further feelings of alienation, inferiority, and worsening educational performance.
Lack of Safety for Black Students on Campuses
The psychological integrity of African-American graduate students cannot be wholly addressed unless broader campus issues of racism and intolerance are simultaneously understood. Regardless of a university’s professed egalitarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia continue to be problems on campus. If black students identify with another minority group, such as LGBTQI, perceptions of inadequacy, discrimination and vulnerability to hate crimes may be heightened. While racist thinking may be on the wane among college students, (a 2010 Pew report found that “almost all millennials accept interracial dating and marriage”; Pew Research Center, 2010), both tacit and overt racist attitudes are by no means absent.
Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, examined the 2012 American National Election Studies (ANES, 2012) racial stereotype battery, in which survey respondents are asked to rate whites, African-American, Hispanics, and Asians according to how hard-working or intelligent they are, and found that younger whites, under the age of 30, are just as likely as older ones to view whites as more intelligent and harder-working than African-Americans (Spencer Piston, personal communication, March 26, 2015).
This kind of attitude or belief system can easily manifest in overt racism, as exemplified by the recent highly publicized incident involving members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity of The University of Oklahoma, who broke out into a chant using racist profanity and making reference to lynching. Needless to say, even joking references about such topics does not engender feelings of safety or belonging among black students.
Prejudice Against LGBTQI
Anti-LGBTQI sentiment also continues to be a major issue at colleges, as bias based on gender identity, race, and the intersection of race and LGBTQI identity is pervasive throughout the United States (NCAVP, 2011, Bolles, 2012). For example, a 2006 American Association of University Women survey found that 73 percent of LGBT students reported experiencing sexual harassment, compared with 61 percent of non-LGBT students while other studies have reported 44 percent of LGBT students reported contact sexual harassment, compared with 31 percent of non-LGBT students (Perez & Hussie, 2014). The “silent epidemic” of female sexual assault (in 2007, 1 in 5 women reported attempted or completed sexual assault, compared with 1 in 16 college men; Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher, & Martin, 2007) combined with African-American identity undoubtedly can lead to worsened academic performance and alienation.
Institutional denial, in the form of a lack of acknowledgement by leaders of such problems on campus, is an additional alienating factor. A recent survey of university and college presidents conducted by Gallup for Higher Ed found that seventy-eight percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that sexual assault was prevalent on their campus, while only six percent agreed or strongly agreed that this was the case (Jaschik & Lederman, 2015).
Provide Financial Aid Packages
Most black students come from lower to middle class households. Financial aid packages, from minority fellowship programs which could include free tuition and stipends to more modest packages which include a combination of gifts, loans and work study, should be made available to needy black students who are accepted into psychology graduate programs. An ideal solution would be to have the work-study positions as a resident assistant/counselor position in an undergraduate dormitory at the school in which they are attending the graduate program. Here they would receive room and board and possibly a stipend as part of the position. In addition, given their field of study, this position would be a natural fit, and would provide them real world experience in counseling and the opportunity for valued mentorship.
Establish Educational Opportunity Programs to Replace Affirmative Action Programs
As pointed out earlier, affirmative action programs are being dismantled at this very moment. To ensure continued minority representation, these set-aside or quota programs should be replaced by aggressive diversity recruitment programs. These programs should encourage graduate students and faculty to target recruitment efforts in school districts that have a higher concentration of minority high school and college students. Once they make contact with these students they may educate and expose them to the field of psychology and the special role of the profession in helping minorities in a culturally sensitive and competent manner. Next they can begin to mentor and guide them as to the academic path they should follow and prepare them to pursue and achieve successful undergraduate and graduate school admission. These activities should include advice on prerequisite classes; academic tutoring, SAT/ACT, and GRE test taking preparation and interview techniques. As a side note, special attention should be paid to black students who are recruited for or are already in an undergraduate program that has a psychology graduate school program. This would lead to more continuity of services, better tracking of students, and more opportunity, because of location or proximity for contact.
Consider GPA Over GRE
As part of this aggressive recruitment effort, when it comes time for black students to be evaluated for admission into the graduate school, given that they traditionally do not score high on the GREs, more consideration should be given to their GPAs versus the GREs. In addition to scholarship, volunteer and community service should also receive consideration for black students, since it is a clear indication that they are mindful of working in black and or minority inner-city or rural communities.
Introduce Guaranteed Enrollment Programs
Another aggressive recruitment initiative is to create a guaranteed enrollment program in which a certain number of prescreened black students who express a desire to become psychologists, and who maintain a pre-determined high GPA in college and a minimal score on their GRE can be guaranteed admission into the psychology graduate division of the same school upon their graduation. These students would also be mentored by psychology and counseling faculty during both their college and graduate school attendance.
Establish Graduate Student Organization Outreach Programs
In order for young black students to be more informed about the field of psychology, graduate student organizations from these programs should establish psychology clubs or junior organizations in high schools and colleges. These outreach programs can also serve the purpose of educating black students about the issues that afflict their communities and cause health disparities. Black students can begin to learn the importance of psychologists’ roles in culturally competent treatment within a minority community. Outreach programs should also establish mentorships between graduate students and high school and undergraduate students, which may also open the door for these black students to attend the graduate school of their mentors.
The Role of Afro-centricity in a “Post-Racial” Academic Environment
Although the attitude that Afro-centric student organizations are unneeded in a “post-racial” academic environment is becoming increasingly common, such organizations continue to play a role. Not only do they allow for an organized response to tacit discrimination and unconscious racism, but they also allow opportunities for advocacy and celebration of unique cultural attributes. They also connect faculty and fellow students for mentorship and guidance.
Encourage Black Students’ Representation in All Professional Organizations
Graduate administrators and faculty should encourage all students to greater professional involvement, but this is particularly true for black students. African-American students should be urged to join not only major professional such as the American Psychological Association but also organizations such as the Association of Black Psychologists. Organizations like the ABP address and celebrate black culture and black issues, but also encourage student and professional participation in treating the socially disadvantaged. These organizations also offer a safe haven for black students and professionals to discuss health related issues in their communities, and together problem solve for solutions.
Hire More Black Faculty
Data analyzed from the Department of Education show that if projected into the future on a straight-line basis the progress of blacks into faculty ranks over the past 26 years, blacks in faculty ranks would not reach parity with the black percentage of the overall American work force for another 140 years (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2009). African-Americans currently make up only five percent of full-time faculty (Cottom, 2014; Wood, 2008). But given the need to increase the number of African-American male recruitment of black faculty becomes even more essential.
...the benefits of an increased African-American faculty presence extend beyond racial boundaries. An increased focus on diversity will be of significant value to all students learning how to provide services in a multicultural society...
Increasing the number of black faculty in these graduate school programs may result in numerous positive outcomes, including:
- Serving as a draw for qualified black students.
- Increasing opportunities for mentorship in traditionally underrepresented professional endeavors. Though both male and female students will benefit from this arrangement, for black male students mentorship may be particularly important inasmuch as earlier role models may be lacking among these students. Because black males have traditionally been perceived as a threat by certain factions of white society (Goff, et al., 2014), black male faculty members can develop skills of appropriate assertiveness in male students.
- Obviously the benefits of an increased African-American faculty presence extend beyond racial boundaries. An increased focus on diversity will be of significant value to all students learning how to provide services in a multicultural society (Umbach, 2006) and will foster a more supportive, friendly, collegial and professional environment for the black students and the entire graduate program.
Be Attuned to the Presence – and Effects – of Unconscious Racism
It is essential for all graduate school administrators, professors and students to be sensitive to the existence of tacit or institutionalized racism or dismissive attitudes towards African-Americans and African-American scholarship. Simply asking and listening to black faculty and students about their concerns may challenge assumptions that African-American intelligentsia are immune to the racial profiling, police brutality and housing discrimination that less prominent or less educated blacks routinely experience. Though perhaps not as obvious, the discrimination-induced stress experienced by highly educated black males may be quite insidious. The realization that higher education does not necessarily equate to equal treatment in society can be traumatic, depressing and frustrating. That is why it is vitally important that black faculty and students have a safe haven in graduate programs to assist in maintaining dignity, self-respect and sanity and to create an academic and social environment that will attract and retain more black faculty and students. As psychologists we are taught that acknowledging clients’ experiences leads to improved perceptions of self. This is no less true in academia, in order to ensure that traditionally underrepresented groups understand that they are valued, respected and supported members of an academic team who bring a vital and different perspective to education.
Support Black Faculty and Students
Asking and listening to the concerns of black faculty and students is a first step to creating a collegial and culturally sensitive environment that will help retain and even increase their numbers. An important second step is proactively acting on the information that is received, by working directly with black faculty and students to eliminate unconscious racism and to constructively, analytically and therapeutically create a just, fair and culturally sensitive and competent academic and social environment where all faculty and students can thrive and grow.
Provide a Safe Campus Environment
Recent highly publicized events have made clear that black students, particularly black male students, are exposed to hazards not experienced by other students. In order for these students to feel safe and protected in graduate programs and on campuses it is vital to engage police and campus public safety officials in an open dialogue that addresses racist and sexist behavior, attitudes, harassment and assault and other forms of bias against minority students – whether they be of color, sexual minority, or other groups subject to discrimination.
School and national hotlines should be established to report any sexual assaults or sexual harassment. Administrative and counseling offices, with culturally sensitive and competent staff, must be established to offer both psychological and legal support.
Finally there should be a zero tolerance attitude for any kind of a hate crime on campus. When administrators take clear and quick action against perpetrators of physical or emotional violence, it is clear proof to black and other at-risk students that they are a valuable and equal participant in their academic communities. The reality is that a school that protects and supports all of its students, regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation or other difference, will create an environment of fairness and concern and will be known as a safe haven where African-American males and all qualified students will have no qualms attending.
We Must Talk About Race
The simple reality is that in many academic environments we have stopped having honest discussions about race and racism, even though its influence continues to inflect American higher education. Despite enlightened educational attitudes, on a national level attitudes towards racism are increasingly polarized. A 2013 Pew poll taken after the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin found that nearly eight-in-ten blacks (78%) say the case raises important issues about race that need to be discussed, versus 28% of whites. Of greater concern was the expressed attitude of 60% of white respondents who believed that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
Why do more whites than blacks refuse to talk about race? In this author’s experience as both a clinician and black man, it is because many whites believe that racism no longer exists. There is more comfort and less cognitive dissonance in believing that if a black man has become the President of the United States, the playing field is now level and we are living in a post-racial society. On the other hand, it is also true that many whites hear any talk of possible racism as an accusation and not a conversation, and African-Americans should try harder to make their conversations about race less of an accusation and more of a dialogue.
As psychologists we have the skills, training and the professional and moral obligation to lead the discussion about race, therapeutically and productively. This will not just help societal progress in general, but, working closer to home, will improve the climate of our own graduate programs. We must create a welcoming and supportive environment where we can attract, train and retain black students who will soon help society in general and in particular their black patients in dealing with the stress and resultant mental illness of day-to-day conflicts, poverty and racism. But our efforts to recruit black students will be ineffective unless we have the conversation of how conscious, unconscious and institutional racism have inhibited the proper recruitment, retention and equal treatment of our black students and faculty.
Dr. Gardere has a private practice in Manhattan and is an Assistant Professor and Course Director at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Touro Graduate School of Psychology, NYC. Dr. Gardere is a well-known media psychologist and is a frequent contributor to MSNBC, NBC Today Show, FOX Network, CBS News, ABC News and other multimedia outlets. He has garnered a reputation as a top motivational and keynote speaker, empowerment and media coach. He is the author of Smart Parenting For African Americans (Kensington, 1999 and 2002), Practical Parenting (with Montel Williams; Hay House, 2001), and Love Prescription, Ending the War Between Black Men and Women (Kensington Press, 2002).
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