The Deafening Silence of the American Psychological Association

Silence is all I hear, and it is beginning to become more than I can bear.

Real social justice is about speaking up because you feel it in your bones. I know how I feel about the American Psychological Association (APA) right now, and I know that someone needs to say something.  Too many peoples’ lives are at stake to not say anything.  I care too damn much to just sit idly by and give my tacit approval to the field of psychology when I feel it is doing harm.

I will open by saying this, despite the APA’s clear explicit stance on being interested in the betterment of the underprivileged, it is no stranger to being on the wrong side of social justice.  At last year’s APA convention in Toronto, news of APA’s complicity in the Bush regime’s torturing of Muslims rocked the beliefs of many in our professional organization.  The cardinal principle of psychology, “Do No Harm,” had been clearly violated by our organization.  This atrocity did not happen in the pre-civil rights era, not in the 70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s, nor 2000’s;  the report came out last year.  I hope this information gives readers some context for what I am about to say next about the APA.

It should be pretty obvious to anyone following current events that we are in the midst of a critical period in our country’s history.  We are in the middle of a new civil rights movement, make no mistake about it.  Minorities, especially Black Americans are fed up with the current status quo that harms them in so many ways.  The country is divided however as White America also simultaneously sees their influence and say in this country slipping for the first time in our nation’s history, and their backlash has become very real.  #AllLivesMatter was created to suppress the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Trump became a presidential nominee, and so much more.  Protests broke out immediately once we learned of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Peoples’ anger over the continued injustice of being a non-white male in this country has reached a tipping point.

The APA, like most large organizations, has decided to remain “neutral” by not endorsing either side of the conflict.  This is completely and utterly unacceptable when Black lives are on the line and the APA in my eyes, however, is far more culpable than the average organization.  The APA actively preaches its social justice inclinations.  We pride ourselves on being on the leading edge of research when it comes to problems of living, of humanity.  Yet now, when a humanitarian crisis has reached a boiling point, when protests and riots are occurring across the country, the APA is completely and utterly silent.  No statement has been made.  There is no activity on APA’s twitter feed regarding the crisis that everyone outside the world of psychology is living and breathing. For an organization that prides itself on advocating for those in need and using our power and privilege to advance the betterment of others, our current silence is absolutely unacceptable.  It is possible that APA may have issued a minor statement somewhere that I have may have missed given that it is such a large organization.  If I missed it though, I guarantee others did too.  Times like these do not call for small statements; they call for big ones.  APA should have made a statement that everyone should have heard by now; it should have been on the news, in the papers…everywhere.  The public should be thinking “woah, psychologists support BLM and believe it that strongly?” Facebook hung a BlackLivesMatter banner outside their corporate office for Pete’s sake.  What has APA, the organization devoted to “advancing psychological science to promote health, education, and human welfare,” done though?  I honestly can’t tell you.  There is no such thing as neutrality in times like these.  APA’s silence on the current BlackLivesMatter movement states very clearly that we think BlackLivesDon’t Matter.

The elitism we psychologists have towards current social movements disgusts me.  We feel that because we are doing the research in our Historically White Colleges and Universities, we are the most well-informed on the current issues.  This elitism leads  psychologists to, by and large, segregate themselves within their own privileged communities.  We may research the multicultural issues, but we publish our findings in journals that are only read by people within our profession.  Most potentially “useful” social justice research never makes it to the public, where it is needed, where the real battles are being waged. This leads me to wonder, why exactly are we researching multicultural issues in the first place and what exactly makes us the “experts?”

To be fair, I have zero doubt that the current social movement will be discussed at APA and the many smaller conferences this summer.  The conversations are happening, but psychologists are only having them within their own privileged circles.  Few are on the ground with the people who have the least amount of privilege, the ones who are most affected by the injustices of living in this country as a non-white male.  Our blindness to our own privilege is a deficit in every aspect of our being as psychologists.  It is impossible to understand and research a social movement if you are not actually a part of it.  If we research social movements from our privileged academic circles, it is highly likely that we will have no impact at all, and if we do, it’ll likely do more harm than good.  Furthermore, by the time APA finally convenes at its yearly convention in early August, critical moments in the social movement will likely have already passed – moments that the APA, using its considerable influence and power in America, could have done something.  We cannot sit idly by and do nothing.  Times like these demand action now.  Lives may very well be lost because of APA’s unthinkable apathy in this critical time.

The APA has not only turned its back on the disadvantaged public though, it has also turned its back on its racial minority members through its inexcusable current silence. Believe it or not, the APA was once much more an organization of privileged individuals than it is now.

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 4.43.12 PMAs you can see, psychology has been making a massive attempt to make its workforce more diverse in the past decade – to a moderate degree of success I might add. Unfortunately, psychology has made the exact same mistake other organizations have made when attempting to implement affirmative action policies.  APA, Universities, corporations, and all other entities who attempt to make their bodies more diverse almost always fail to provide their new minority members with the supports they need.

  • APA doesn’t seem to realize that many of their new Black members might be severely impacted by the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
  • APA doesn’t realize that the brothers and sisters of their Black members may literally be dying in the streets.
  • Most importantly, the APA doesn’t realize that their Black members may be the next Alton Sterling or Philando Castile.

This is absolutely inexcusable.  Minority individuals in primarily White institutions already have it rough enough as it is.   For an organization supposedly committed to advocacy and social justice to turn its back on its Black members right now though… I don’t know and will never know what that feels like because I am not Black.  All I know is that thinking about the pain and betrayal they must be feeling right now brings tears to my eyes.

Last but not least, I want to talk about a topic privileged psychologists love to discuss: the chronic underutilization of mental health services by racial and ethnic minorities.  The reasons given seem to be as numerous as the number of people who give them.  They range from lack of awareness, to stigma, to cultural differences, to language differences, to lack of resources, and more.  What psychologists who do this research largely fail to realize is that they are trying to get minorities to conform to a traditionally white form of healing. Minorities rightfully distrust White culture and no amount of psychoeducation will undo that.

I want to leave you with this question:

Why should Black Americans trust the field of psychology when the APA is completely silent during this critical time in Black history?




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