Clinical Notes: Unpacking the American Psychological Association's Apology for Perpetuating Systemic Racism
I recently talked with Dr. Maysa Akbar, Chief Diversity Officer at the American Psychological Association about their bombshell apology around perpetuating racism and their plans to amend.
The American Psychological Association failed in its role leading the discipline of psychology, was complicit in contributing to systemic inequities, and hurt many through racism, racial discrimination, and denigration of people of color, thereby falling short on its mission to benefit society and improve lives. APA is profoundly sorry, accepts responsibility for, and owns the actions and inactions of APA itself, the discipline of psychology, and individual psychologists who stood as leaders for the organization and field - from the American Psychological Association’s document titled Apology to People of Color for APA’s Role in Promoting, Perpetuating, and Failing to Challenge Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Human Hierarchy in the U.S. adopted on October 29, 2021.
Psychology is defined as the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context. In an ideal society, psychologists would be able to provide unbiased analyses, theories and reporting on the human condition that would in turn offer levels of clarity as to why human beings are prone to exhibit certain harmful behaviors. If the principles of psychology were founded from a non-hierarchal perspective that considered the cultural nuances of different identity groups for what they were instead of what leading experts automatically assigned them to be, then we would all be living in a different world. A world that would not dare attempt to categorize lapses in judgment, deviant behavior, mental breaks or questionable ethics as the result of a biological defect that specific groups are predisposed to carry in their bones.
In America, however, a system of racial hierarchy cannot survive without the belief that people of color were born inferior to white Americans. There has to be a foregone conclusion that people of color exist with a lesser degree of mental acuity than white people, and therefore do not have the cognitive abilities, mental faculties, sufficient behavioral health and/or overall soundness of mind to be treated equitably. And it’s not enough for these structurally ingrained prejudices to just exist as opinion within the framework of white supremacy culture, there has to be fact-based evidence to support this bias.
For nearly 130 years the American Psychological Association (APA) has functioned as somewhat of a co-conspirator in the cultural crime of systemic racism. Late last month, after years of “contributing to systemic inequities” and hurting “many through racism, racial discrimination, and denigration of people of color,” the APA offered a lengthy apology to communities of color in which it admitted to failure in its mission to benefit society and improve lives and provided a detailed list of resolutions to atone for its role in essentially serving as a watchdog structural racism.
Upon hearing the news of this apology I, like many people of color, was naturally skeptical about the timing of the APA’s resolution and the motives behind it. But instead of just stewing in cynicism, I decided to reach out to the APA to speak with someone within the organization that could provide context as to how this apology announcement would alter their work and the field of psychology at large, but mostly to get an understanding of how they expected communities of color to respond to this bombshell of an admission. The APA put me in contact with their Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Maysa Akbar. Dr. Akbar and I spoke for just over a half-hour about the timing of this announcement, the APA’s failed history with communities of color and what are the necessary steps for the apology to go beyond clearing their own conscious, and actually get to the root of dismantling the systemic racism that their organization provided cover for over the past 130 years.
Unpacking the tension internally
One of the first things I needed to get from Dr. Akbar was a sense of what the inner-organization discourse was like leading up to the decision to release the statement of apology. Dr. Akbar identifies as Black and Latinx and has only been in her position as Chief Diversity Officer at the APA for 11 months, so I was curious to know what type of environment she walked into as the organization was arriving at such a monumental reckoning. She described the process of dealing with “an extremely complex and sensitive issue” and how layered that process was from an organization-wide standpoint.
“Apologizing between individuals is difficult. Sometimes you're the one doing the apologizing. Sometimes you're the one getting the apology. And when you're doing this from an organizational-wide perspective, and you're doing it to an entire community that is not homogeneous, it's even more complex,” Dr. Akbar explained.
“Some of the barriers that we faced [were] some psychologists saying that we took too long to issue an apology for an organization that's almost 130 years old. And that we know that there were historical harms that were done just because in society, there were times where the discrimination was alive and well and active.”
We talked about the time of segregation the APA was formed in, and how the harm perpetrated by the APA was not just exclusive to Americans that were marginalized by way of racial identity. Internally, the APA felt it was necessary to start its road to redemption by addressing the immovable elephant of race that never leaves the room in America. According to Dr. Akbar, there were robust conversations about what it meant for this initial apology to be specific to communities of color, and to momentarily exclude other marginalized groups.
“There was, of course, a lot of conversation related to that, and the APA needing to be very specific about that. This is a foundational place for us. It's a place where we needed to focus on the harms of communities of color first, but that it was not the last area that we would be [focusing].”
Dr. Akbar was clear in telling me who was seated at the table throughout the decision-making process of how the APA’s apology would roll out and what it meant for the organization to follow the lead of psychologists of color in framing their apology, which historically had not been the practice of organizational leaders.
“Many people, including the task force members who were advisors in this process was made up of scholars of color who are experts in this field as was the apology subcommittee. There was a very strong commitment and effort [to] emphasize that this apology would not be authentic or genuine if it didn't have actionable steps tied to it.”
“It's not okay just to say, we're sorry, without looking at the points that were necessary in terms of repair and reconciliation and how we're going to engage in that activity, in collaboration with the communities that were hurt.”
The timing of the apology
The next thing I needed to hear from Dr. Akbar was why the APA decided that now was the time to issue an apology and share their plans for redress. I found it odd that the APA didn’t jump on the “racial reckoning” train of 2020 that practically every other institution got on in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. And though she did acknowledge the relevance of George Floyd and the glaring health disparities communities of color faced at the onset of Covid, she also told me that the apology had been a talking point internally for a long time.
“The interesting part of this again, [and] it speaks to its complexity, is that many in psychology and within APA and its leadership, many of the staff that were in leadership, but also the board of directors and other boards and committee members had long considered an apology. And there were several times where apologies specifically to the Indigenous community took some traction and the process began, but they never actualized. And for us, the actualization was making sure that our council of representatives had, what we call a resolution. A resolution turns into policy once it's voted upon, and we have to act on that resolution as policy, and then we also make it public. So that was a process that just happened in October. There were many attempts to get to that, but it never really [got] went underway.”
In talking specifically about the Covid crisis, Dr. Akbar referenced the phrase “mental health pandemic” and the pandemic of racism that combined with the general public health crisis to signal to the APA that a resolution was critical. The organization had spent years fanning the flames of systemic racism by arriving at theories and validating studies that were inconsiderate of the cultural nuances of communities of color and found themselves, much like the rest of the nation watching the fire rage out of control when decades of systemic oppression combined with a once-in-a-generation pandemic to explode in cities across the country.
“It was just a dual pandemic. And so all of those things put together really ignited an opportunity for us to say, if we want to be major contributors in understanding how to dismantle systemic racism in our society, we have to take a look internally first. We are experts in understanding systems and organizations and institutions and understanding the role of human behavior and the science of human behavior. But how dare we begin to talk about dismantling systemic racism anywhere else, if we don't take a look at ourselves and that's really the process that we needed to go through.”
The role of eugenics in the specific subjugation of Black and Indigenous people
One of the most interesting points of the APA’s apology statement was their acknowledgment of how the study of eugenics aided in establishing white supremacist hierarchy, specifically with respect to anti-Blackness as an accepted cultural norm. In their resolution, the APA said the following about the role of eugenics in creating the framework for racism we see today:
WHEREAS APA was established by White male leadership, many of whom contributed to scientific inquiry and methods that perpetuated systemic racial oppression, including promoting the ideas of early 20th-century eugenics; Eugenics is defined as the idea that racial differences and hierarchies are biologically based and fixed, and was used to support segregation, sterilization, and antimarriage law.
WHEREAS eugenicists focused on the measurement of intelligence, health, and capability, concepts which were adopted by the field of psychology and used systemically to create the ideology of White supremacy and harm communities of color.
Being that the basis of eugenics was an admittedly flawed method of determining one’s placement in American society, I asked Dr. Akbar about the role eugenics played in shaping this nation culturally, and about the significance of it being included in the APA’s apology.
“The eugenics movement was intended to demonstrate a white racial superiority and it promoted a lot of harmful ideas about the human population by identifying preferred characteristics that should be found in people and those preferred characteristics led to a bunch of social and legal practices that were implemented against marginalized groups. For example, like the use of sterilization in Black and Indigenous communities, the identification of lower IQ levels within a Black community and Black children, the idea of segregation being supported, because there were differences between whites and any other community of color, the laws against interracial marriages. All of these concepts that were derived from the eugenics movement had incredible social and legal implications.”
“That's why we needed to be aware of our participation in this process and make sure that not only did we make people aware through that extensive chronology that we did, but to be clear that we stand against anything that promotes white hierarchy, white supremacy, or racism and discrimination in any, any type of form.”
On Black psychologists parting ways from the APA throughout the years
In their apology, the APA also acknowledged the specific harm their organization had done to generations of Black psychologists, and how that harm resulted in numerous Black psychologists defecting from membership with the APA to form their own psychological organizations that were specific to the mental health needs of Black people.
I asked Dr. Akbar if she thought that the culture of white male supremacy was so deeply ingrained in the field of psychology that the “leading experts” in the field were previously not willing to deconstruct their ideologies out of fear of having to admit that they willfully ignored the findings of their BIPOC peers as it related to studies on Black and Indigenous people.
“The discipline of psychology has a responsibility to address social determinants at work earning and our society at that time, which included the overwhelming poverty that was happening in communities of color, systemic and structural racism, and a host of different social concerns. And at that time  the response from APA did not actively move the association to be a disruptor for those social injustices that were going on.”
“That's exactly why the Black psychologists that were so vocal around these issues decided that they were going to leave APA and form an organization that would be more in alignment with the issues that were happening in Black America at that time. When I look at society, whether we look at the criminal justice system, the healthcare system the science and research enterprise, any, we can almost name any sector setting, and go back to the roots of the, in what's been ingrained in those systems.”
Dr. Akbar elaborated on the responsibility the field of psychology and the APA needed to take in truly understanding the intricacies of racism, a move that needed to happen if the leading organization had any hopes of sustaining credibility with psychologists of color.
“In February of 2020, we had to make sure that we had a uniform definition for racism because before we were going to engage in an apology if we didn't understand among ourselves in the field, [of] what is racism, we were going to all be apologizing for different things. And one of the foundational pieces of that definition is to look at the different aspects of racism, whether it's interpersonal levels of racism, institutional, structural, or systemic to address your question specifically about what's ingrained, adding that definition, allowed us to understand that the type of racism that we were prepared to dismantle at the systemic and the structural level, and we needed to make sure that we uprooted what was already ingrained in the DNA of the association.”
Action steps of undoing decades of harm
Dr. Akbar had given me lots of historical context and a bit of insight into the decision for the APA to issue this apology, but I needed to hear about their specific plans for rectifying the damage they are now holding themselves responsible for. As a writer who primarily writes about issues of injustice, and as an organizer who often used my platform to try to rally around larger systemic solutions, I’ve often found myself frustrated when people would demand answers to the minutia of issues of injustice when I was focused on getting macro-level resolve. So it made me slightly hesitant to press Dr. Akbar for concrete answers, but she was honest in what she could and could not specify.
“I think that it was a Herculean effort to get an apology across the finish line and to be adopted by council unanimously. You mentioned that there were two other resolutions, which focus on dismantling structural racism in certain sectors and settings. And then the other one is psychology's role in health equity. And instead of looking at these resolutions as a bunch of tasks that we will check off really our approach to this is to make sure that it is focused on transformational change for APA and for the discipline of psychology. That takes a lot more thought, a lot more strategy, a lot more concerted effort from all of us who are psychologists to be able to move the discipline forward and to actually be in alignment with [what] the vision statement is. Impacting the world by using our psychological science.”
“The first identifiable tangible step that we identified that was highlighted is first we needed to do an audit. What are the activities that we have going on? What have we been doing? Where has this been missing? What are people saying are the most impactful things that are affecting the discipline right now, and to give a basic starting post. Write a basic sketch of a strategy and a plan for implementing these actionable steps. So in February of 2022, we have to come back to our council with a full audit of those activities, understanding where the gaps and the opportunities are. And then we're going to move into identifying where those actionable steps are going to be punched, positioned, and to you know, ignite the teams that are going to be working on moving those forward.”
“We're invested in systemic and structural change for an entire discipline for over 400 years that this country has gone through and experienced with discrimination and racism has looked like, and for this organization, that's almost 130 years old. You can't do that overnight, or you can't do it well overnight. So, our commitment is to do it in collaboration with [the] community, our commitment is to do it in a planned and strategic way. And our commitment is to continue to look at this from where we make the most impact in psychology to open up the pathways for other psychologists of color to be successful.”
Plans to aid in dismantling racial hierarchy in other sectors of society
As Dr. Akbar and I continued to talk, I was starting to feel more confident in the APA’s commitment to taking the steps necessary in disassembling systemic racism within the field of psychology but was curious about the APA’s plans as leaders in the study of human behavior to assist other white leaders in various sectors of society such as government, law enforcement and education with dismantling systemic racism within their fields.
Dr. Akbar both told me what the APA is working towards and expressed her desire for other institutions to take a proactive commitment to dismantle ingrained racism.
“We've started a couple of different task forces that are looking into some of these sectors and settings. There’s a task force [for example] that looks specifically at the healthcare industry and how to create equity within the healthcare system. And so, you know if, if we look at the resolution that was passed around health equity, there are actionable steps that are going to be implemented. That is just within that sector. The other areas that we've looked at are the criminal justice system and policing, and what the science tells us in terms of interaction, bias, bystander, phenomenon, those kinds of things that cause that, that without knowledge, even though you have a role to do or a job to do without the knowledge of how humans you know, interact or how behavior is shaped or how our perceptions are influenced, then we may not understand how all that comes into the job that we're doing, or the system that we're working in.”
“We have a responsibility to make sure that we are influencing in leading the path for other organizations and other, systems to be able to look at how we did it so that perhaps it would influence what they do next. We have what we call the EDI [Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] framework, which is if you want to implement equity, diversity and inclusion in your workspace, in wherever, whatever sector you work in, here's a frame that you can use whose entire focus is understanding the science of people where you can apply EDI or DEI into that space.”
“I think that there was a reaction after George Floyd and a lot of people wanted to mobilize, and a lot of people created rules. But, but in terms of the systems-wide change, and in terms of understanding the implications of that change, I think that's yet to be determined and we want to support people in doing that.”
Hopes for the APA moving forward
I could not end my conversation with Dr. Akbar without inquiring about what she personally hopes to see from the APA in light of this long-overdue apology and statement of resolutions. She got candid with me about the ways her identity intersects with her work and informed me that she has no choice other than to believe in the changes her organization has proclaimed it will make.
“I started at this position about 11 months ago, and I'm a woman of color that has definitely gone through her fair share of struggles within the discipline. And I identify as an Afro-Latina, both Black and Latinx and it has everything to do with who I am in terms of my identity as a human being, as a person, my identity as a psychologist, my love for the profession and what I hope to exact in terms of being a change agent for this work. And if I didn't believe in my heart that there was authenticity and moving this forward, I don't know what I can tolerate being in an ecosystem because that's just not the way that I'm made.”
“I spent a lot of years of my life working on unpacking and understanding the intersection between racism and mental health and helping people understand that there is such a thing as racial trauma and, and helping organizations understand that if they wanted to move their EDI efforts forward, they needed to really excavate the foundation of who they are and rebuild. My contribution to this [is] from a very personal place. I truly believe that psychology has a critical role to play in this entire process, not just for us as a discipline, but to really make impactful change, because what other disciplines understand, how people think, how they feel, how they act, why they do things that they do.”
“I do have a lot of hope and I'm in this role because that hope drives me that we will be able to create an equitable, inclusive world. Is that going to happen in my lifetime? I don't know, but I'm hopeful that it will.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Donney Rose is a Writer, Educator, Organizer and Chief Content Editor at The North Star