Posted on September 3, 2020

APA Calls for True Systemic Change in U.S. Culture

Zara Abrams, American Psychological Association, September 1, 2020

Police brutality may be what sparked a wave of protests across the United States and beyond, but the “racism pandemic”—a term used by APA President Sandra Shullman, PhD, for the ongoing harm caused by racism—runs far deeper. Today’s inequities, psychologists say, are deeply rooted in our past, and the status quo is no longer acceptable. “Every institution in America is born from the blood of white supremacist ideology and capitalism—and that’s the disease,” says Theopia Jackson, PhD, president of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi).

Across the country, there’s talk about what it would take to achieve true systemic change. Psychological research, treatment and leadership can and should be a key part of the solution. But that requires taking a hard look at how the field has overlooked—and even perpetuated—racial injustice in the past, psychologists say.

APA is addressing the issue on three levels: by broadly communicating psychological science on bias and racism, including through media interviews, blogs and podcasts; by developing actionable recommendations through an APA Presidential Task Force related to racial disparities in policing and police-citizen encounters, particularly related to the Black community; and by working to dismantle institutional racism over the long term, including within APA and the field of psychology.

That work will rely on extensive input from APA members, a process that started with a series of virtual town halls launched in June. Members’ priorities include establishing a racially diverse psychology workforce and more efficiently and effectively translating research insights into action.

Psychologists have a role as activists in their own local communities as well. They can make their voices heard by contacting their lawmakers, volunteering for a cause or candidate, speaking up on social media and more.

“APA has a long history of taking a stand on these issues, but we also know that we have our own issues as an association and as a field,” says APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD. “We have to look at our role as a discipline in perpetuating some of the things that are being protested. That has to be a part of our commitment.”


Bringing people of color to psychology

Though African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, they represent just 4% of the psychology workforce, according to 2018 data from APA’s Center for Workforce Studies.

“This discouraging statistic tells us that there is a problem in our field in academia of attracting and retaining students of diverse backgrounds, in particular African Americans,” says APA President-elect Jennifer F. Kelly, PhD. “What this ultimately results in is an access problem.”

For years, Kelly was the only African American psychologist in Georgia who was board certified in clinical health psychology, an especially important area given the documented health disparities among African Americans.

“Everywhere I go, I’m the only African American male psychologist,” said Dana Jackson, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who is based in New York City, during APA’s virtual town hall, adding that he has never had a supervisor of color.

APA offers a series of grants and fellowships for psychologists from ethnic- and racial-minority groups and convenes the Council of National Psychology Associations for the Advancement of Ethnic Minority Interests, which promotes career development for psychologists of color and addresses other equity issues.

And there are signs of hope as the field is becoming increasingly diverse. In 2019, 38% of psychology graduate students were from racial- or ethnic-minority groups, and 12% were African American (“The State of the Psychology Training Pipeline and Workforce,” APA, 2018). However, there’s still room for improvement, Theopia Jackson says.

She recommends rewarding psychology training programs for graduating students of color—not just enrolling them—to better incentivize program leaders to provide ongoing material support and mentorship for students in need. In addition, undergraduate and graduate program curricula should be modified to include diverse literature—such as the scholarship of the Journal of Black Psychology—and minority psychological associations such as ABPsi should be authorized providers of continuing education on par with APA, she says.

Such changes will elevate the voices of Black scholars, further diversify the psychology workforce and ensure that the field’s priorities incorporate multicultural values and perspectives.

Having more diverse voices and experiences in the science, education and practice of psychology adds to the richness of our profession and ultimately will have a more profound impact on our society, notes Kelly.


Further reading

Draft Statement on Hate Incidents in the United States
APA Div. 32 (Society for Humanistic Psychology), 2019

Race and Ethnicity Guidelines in Psychology
APA, 2019

Multicultural Guidelines: An Ecological Approach to Context, Identity, and Intersectionality
APA, 2017

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
DiAngelo, R., Beacon Press, 2018