Is APA Really Doing the Professed Anti-Racism Work?
Updated: Sep 15
On May 29, 2020, the American Psychological Association (APA) president issued a press release, like many other organizations, to take a stand against racism and the racist impacts highlighted by the coronavirus. While some comments and insights were accurate, there were many harmful statements that reinforced racist ideas, reflected a lack of appreciation and depth of the systemic realities of racism upon wellbeing, and demonstrated the limitations of psychology's dominant way of understanding racism and mental health. Honestly, much of it felt like lip service. To read the press release, click here.
As part of one of APA's divisions, I wrote the initial draft of a letter to send to APA asking for accountability for the problematic statements expressed (after a fruitful meeting that reflected many ideas and insights shared by other members of the group). We demanded that a new public statement acknowledging these errors be issued, that this new statement offer a critical analysis of the problematic statements, and that a formal apology be offered. This draft was then revised as part of a team and sent to APA. I don't know if APA ever responded to our letter. I, like numerous others, am still waiting on a new statement.
I believe people beyond our insular ranks may benefit from reading the statement - be it for a place of acknowledgement that these statements were wrong and harmful, or for educational purposes to learn more tools for critical analysis. I hope that publishing this piece, however, small, contributes to the efforts of holding APA accountable and responsible to the goals and ideals it espouses. The objective in writing this piece was not to defame the APA and its press release, but to offer a practical step APA could engage in to foster the accountability and change it expressed in its original statement. This, like my other recent posts, was written a while ago, but I figure better late then never!
A CALL FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
Another Civil Rights Movement is underway and APA, like every organization, is facing a historic crossroad. APA has the potential to be a critical and powerful voice, positioning psychology at the forefront of addressing racial inequality. APA also runs the risk of being “left in the dust” as other organizations assume leadership in eradicating racism by role modeling and embodying anti-racism as they take action.
If APA is truly serious in its commitment to “reduce racism and discrimination,” it will need to undergo a series of systemic, specific, and painful ideological shifts. Many of the established strategies that APA uses to address issues will need to change. If APA is intent on “standing against racism and hate in all its forms,” we need to start immediately by “cleaning up our own house.” The first APA publication has several deeply problematic comments that constitute and contribute to/reinforce victim blaming of Black individuals and communities for police brutality. A goal for no individual or community should ever be to “comply with their (police) directives and accept any outcome, favorable or unfavorable.” Additionally, the solution of focusing on police behavior implies that a) it is possible for an individual to act with “neutrality” when this ignores the fundamentality of human bias (i.e. racism) let alone the wealth of research on implicit bias, and b) that it appears reasonable to keep Black communities safe from police violence by simply having police “act in a procedurally just manner and treat people with dignity, respect, fairness, and neutrality.” Such a statement ignores the entire history of policing and race in the US that has led to the current crisis. As psychologist Dr. Cheryl Grills has explained in a recent interview: “What’s the solution? Appeal to fairness, justice, and morality? We’ve tried that. Voting? We’ve tried that again and again. Litigation? Done that. Legislation? Done that too. Nonviolent marches and protests? We’ve done that. Pray? We do a lot of that. Cry? We’ve done even more of that. So where have things gotten us? What would you have us do? The broken social contract becomes too glaring and the pot boileth over (2020).” This, in addition to the recommendation that those traumatized by institutionalized racism should practice self-care and seek professional help reflects the APA’s profound lack of understanding of how structural racism and policing affects communities of color, and minimizes complex systems-based interventions to individual mental health and wellness practices.
If APA does not address the deeply problematic narratives in this statement, it has begun its mission by violating the very values and goals at its core of multicultural competency, that moreover are causing deep hurt and retraumatization to many members of the APA and the public.
As the APA is aware, multiple other divisions have already strongly urged the APA to retract or modify its first statement on the “racism pandemic” because it is truly unacceptable. APA’s refusal thus far to recognize, acknowledge, own, or apologize for its racist comments has now created a second racist act of ignoring that a racist act has occurred, and not holding itself accountable to what it said by issuing a retraction, revision, or new statement. APA’s reply that the statement “already went to press” is not an answer but a deflection of responsibility and true action. The press can pick up a new statement. Indeed, the press already picked up a second statement by APA on June 2, 2020.
This is not a new problem. APA has a history of struggling to respond adequately and to represent its member’s concerns and voices, especially as it addresses real crises affecting communities of color. In 1968 during the Black Civil Rights Movement, members of the APA left to form The Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) in response to The APA’s “lack of effort” and “failure to relate to the needs of the Black community…and Black psychology students”(Obasi, Speight, Rowe, Clark, & Turner-Essel, 2012). The APA effectively ignored a Petition of Concerns, a 10-Point Program proposal, and Black students speaking directly to the president. This was and continues to be an enormous loss for APA.
APA runs the risk of repeating the same mistake of inadequately addressing racial inequality and alienating its members by not listening to the voices of its members, and by not taking targeted action. Some divisions may be having discussions regarding a potential departure from APA for reasons nearly identical to ABPsi’s, over 50 years ago. It is clear some divisions are deeply unhappy with APA’s responses.
These are not wishes or preferences we are discussing. These are needs from members in your own divisions, and from members of society. As such, we are not asking for a public revision or the issuing of a new statement. We are demanding that this be done. This is a small, quick, and easy starting step for APA to correct course.
What we require is nothing less than APA’s own self-ascribed mission and goals expressed on June 2, 2020. In this second statement, the APA asserts that it will play a role in changing “the nation’s narrative about race so that we can have more productive dialogues, and pledges to “exam(ine) our role as a field and as an association in perpetuating these ills.” These are wonderful, highly valuable ways for APA to address racial inequality through modeling leadership and professional integrity in critical reflection and accountability on racism. Issuing a new/revised statement is a perfect opportunity and indispensable form of action for APA to demonstrate to its members and to the public that it is willing to follow through on these newly expressed commitments by offering an analysis of how some of the statement’s original content perpetuates systemic racism and anti-Blackness. By such action, APA could meaningfully contribute to and shape the nation’s narrative on race, through productive dialogue. If the APA is unwilling to do this, then APA is failing to do the work of its professed goals and values.
Leading by example, The Search Institute has already taken the initiative to own and reflect upon the problems in their first statement by issuing a second on June 1st 2020, “What Our Statement on Minneapolis Should Have Said.” What the Search Institute has decided to do with their limitations and flaws is to practice Institutional Courage. We do not expect APA to make perfect statements and never make mistakes. We do expect you to listen to your members and communities and make the choice now to shift from the Institutional Betrayal of inaction regarding harmful racist public comments this past month, and demonstrate Institutional Courage and leadership by issuing a new/revised statement, marking a path of professional integrity and public leadership on racial inequality. Acknowledging, examining, and apologizing for the profoundly harmful, uninformed statements made in the last APA press release regarding racism and the pandemic would not be a sign of failure, but quite the opposite the first sign of a true commitment to change through action.
I highly recommend Dr. Cheryl Grill's interview brief interview on ABC, as quoted in the above piece. Click here to view.