Black Lives Matter – A Brief History of Racism in Psychology

The Psychology Students’ Association at the University of Toronto (St. George) stands in solidarity with and in support of the black community, who have been unfairly treated and brutalized by racial injustices. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, we would like to pause, reflect, and learn about systemic racism in academia and in particular, psychology. 

Psychology is a field that people often look to in order to answer questions about racism. What kind of stereotypes do people have about black people? How do these prejudices manifest? What can be done to combat racism? However, it is also important to recognize that the field of psychology itself has historically supplied arguments to fuel racism

Systemic associations of psychological characteristics and race have been present since the 18th century. Often, tests were constructed to validate beliefs of Anglo-Saxon superiority, and this rhetoric quickly circulated amongst the scientific community and general public. The public’s growing trust of science in the late 20th century led to a widespread belief that this racial hierarchy was scientifically valid. 

Those who participated in race psychology concluded that there were innate racial differences amongst white and black people, and among other European races. Intelligence was widely studied in race psychology. For example, the mulatto hypothesis, which proposed that a larger proportion of white “blood” in a black person’s ancestry would lead to higher intelligence, emerged from this field. 

Intelligence tests reflected knowledge that would be typically known by white, middle-class men. In 1917, Robert Yerkes (then-president of the American Psychological Association) spear-headed psychology’s contribution to the war effort. Soldier screenings generated a race-based distribution of intellect, not accounting for limited access to education and literacy rates for black Americans, who had the lowest test scores. These disparities between intelligence test scores of white and black men enabled the justification of long-standing racist assumptions. 

Francis Galton, who contributed to psychometrics and conceptualized g (general cognitive ability), was a pioneer of eugenics. His obsession with measuring everything led to the belief that those who were most ‘fit’ (i.e. most intelligent, attractive, and productive) should reproduce to improve the human population. He also advocated for the quantification of levels of racial intelligence. These ideologies resonated with white intellectuals and contributed to negative eugenics, such as with Nazism. 

While the racist underpinnings don’t negate the significance of these psychologists’ other advancements, it is vital to consider the influential role that prevailing attitudes and stereotypes played in the construction of their theories. Racism was a foundational presumption in early psychology that created narratives in explaining psychological constructs, led to differences in institutional support/funding/hiring decisions for black psychologists, and was used to justify discriminatory practices and policies. We have come a long way from believing that there is a biological basis behind race to recognizing the large variances within race. Many psychologists have conducted experiments to examine and challenge these discriminatory hierarchies. 

Some of you may be familiar with the doll tests investigating racial preferences in black children in segregated schools. Black children attributed positive characteristics to white dolls and attributed negative characteristics to black dolls, demonstrating the detrimental effects that internalized racism had on black children’s self-perceptions. Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll test played a role in numerous school desegregation cases and later helped overturn the “separate but equal” precedent. 

Beyond studying racism as a research topic, we must also recognize the adversities that black psychologists face. Less known is the fact that Mamie Clark studied under Henry E. Garrett, who was openly racist and a supporter of segregation. Despite this challenge, Mamie Clark became the first African American woman to earn her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University and even rebutted her supervisor’s testimony that black children were inferior to white children. Clark’s journey is one of the many outstanding examples of BIPOC overcoming hardship with resilience. 

The PSA wants to find the balance between using our platform to share information and avoid speaking over the experiences of BIPOC. We want to make it known that we unequivocally support the black community and are open to discussing ways to support the movement. We stand with you. Black Lives Matter. 

Here are some resources for learning about racial trauma:
Racial trauma: Theory, research, and healing: Introduction to the special issue.
Healing the Hidden Wounds of Racial Trauma
Radical Self-Care in the Face of Mounting Racial Stress

To learn more about how to support Black Lives Matter safely:
Black Lives Matter – Canada
Protest Rights Guide
How To Protest Safely During COVID-19

This post was created with the help of the PSA 2018/19 and 2019/20 executive teams. Thank you all for your contribution!