• The American Psychological Association has issued a formal apology for its role in promoting and perpetuating racism in the field of psychology in the United States.
  • The APA passed two resolutions for dismantling systemic racism, pledging to take action to advance health equity in psychology.
  • Though the apology was a long time coming, the APA acknowledges that it’s a step toward action, reconciliation, healing, and change.

In October 2021, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a formal apology to People of Color in the United States, acknowledging its contributions to systemic racism.

The resolution, adopted by the APA Council of Representatives, is part of a larger effort to review policies and practices that will hold the organization accountable and promote health equity and diversity in the field of psychology.

In a second resolution, the APA identified psychology’s role in helping to dismantle systemic racism in other sectors and settings (i.e., childhood and education​; science​; healthcare​; work and economic opportunities; criminal and juvenile justice; and government and public policy) by adopting anti-racist practices.

“We’re examining all our work going forward through the lens of anti-racism,” Maysa Akbar, PhD, a clinical psychologist and chief diversity officer at the APA, wrote in an email.

The APA states that its lengthy process for issuing an apology was intentional.

“It took time to develop all the steps necessary for APA not only to apologize but to lay the groundwork for actions aimed at reconciliation and healing,” Akbar said. “Work on these resolutions began in 2020, as APA confronted a very disturbing time in our nation’s history.”

In February 2021, the APA Council of Representatives adopted a resolution defining racism, followed by a historical chronology that examined psychology’s role in racial hierarchy. The chronology details harm done by the APA and psychology against Communities of Color.

“The difference between 2020 and 2021 is not as important as the difference between 1850 and 2021, and how long it’s taken us to have this critical conversation,” trauma psychologist Wizdom Powell, PhD, director of the Health Disparities Institute and associate professor of psychiatry at UConn Health, said in an interview with Psych Central.

Powell, who also chairs the APA’s Health Disparities in Boys and Men Working Group, said the APA’s approach to addressing anti-racism with actionable commitment is more impactful than an apology on its own.

“The death of George Floyd set in motion one of the most significant racial reckonings of our time, and many leaders were moved to say something following that tragic loss to our nation — but many haven’t followed up with any action,” Powell said.

Still, other psychologists feel the APA’s apology was overdue. “While an acknowledgment of the APA’s legacy of racism is a necessary first step, the apology is insufficient,” Antoinette Wilson, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston Downtown, wrote in an email. Wilson’s research focuses on how racial typicality impacts in-group belonging and discrimination.

Wilson expressed concern over whether the APA’s stated intentions would be followed with measurable change.

”I’m looking forward to seeing these resolutions in action,” Wilson said in an email. “Without this, we are left with yet another symbol meant to placate those who’ve been oppressed, which may be just as damaging and impede meaningful progress toward equity and justice.”

A large and growing body of evidence shows that racism creates health inequities.

According to Powell, eradicating racism within the healthcare system will require interventions at the systemic level. “You have to change the system to change the behavior,” Powell said.

“In our strategies to address racism, we have to get to the root of how we’re shaping the field. Without that, evidence-based therapies or interventions will be flawed, imbued with the residue of racial bias that has permeated our field for a long time,” she added.

Here’s how the APA intends to reshape key systems both within and outside the field:

  • Healthcare. Educators of psychologists and other mental health professionals will address the limitations of knowledge within the field derived from white supremacist ideologies.
  • Criminal justice. Psychologists and criminal and juvenile justice agencies will work together to develop anti-racist policies and practices and will advocate for eliminating the disproportionate criminalization and punishment of People of Color.
  • Education. Psychologists-in-training will be educated about the field’s historical contributions to racism. Educators will be trained to help raise awareness and mitigate biases that negatively affect the learning and development of students of color.

Racial inequities exist in psychological research, education, and practice.

“We have a lot more work to do to diversify the field,” Powell said. “Not just in terms of racial and ethnic minorities, but expanding to include all of the individuals who make this nation such a culturally rich place.”

To diversify a predominantly white field, the APA will prioritize educational pathways and opportunities for workforce development for psychologists of color and advocate for increased research funding and opportunities for scholars of color.

“We’re woefully understaffed by racial and ethnic minority males in the field of psychology,” Powell said. “We have a lot more work to do to grow their representation in a field that desperately needs them.”

Wilson noted the visible effect of white-centric curricula in the demographics of practicing psychologists. “Only 4% of psychologists are Black and 86% are white,” Wilson said.

Diversifying scientific research

Racial diversity is lacking in psychological research samples. The APA will work with scholars to obtain study samples that are representative of populations of color, resulting in broader findings beyond white, middle-class, college-educated individuals.

In addition, policies and practices (i.e., grant proposals and publications) used in peer-reviewed science will be evaluated.

Diversifying education

According to Wilson, one of the most damaging aspects of the APA’s history of racism and oppression has been the reinforcement of a curriculum that values and centers whiteness and devalues and ignores other groups.

“The effect this has in education is that we have students who read studies comprised of participants who do not look like them and may not reflect their lived experiences, and textbooks that often center on dominant perspectives and regulate discussion of People of Color to special sections at the end of a chapter,” Wilson said.

In addition, there must also be increased funding for minority fellowship programs, like those offered by the APA. Powell attributes a portion of her success as a psychologist to subsidized programs such as these.

“It helped facilitate my entry into a field as a first-generation doctoral student,” she said. “When you look at the numbers of PhD graduates in psychology, they haven’t really changed much since the ’70s.”

Wilson said that investing in minority fellowship programs sends an important message that minority students are valued and belong.

“We must increase the diversity of graduate students, practitioners, and professors and enact policies that show their presence and work is valued and supported,” Wilson said, adding that publishing and widely promoting the work that minority students produce is also vital to promoting equity and inclusion at the educational level.

Diversifying practice

The APA will seek federal funding to train psychologists from underrepresented groups to work in underserved communities.

Another way forward, according to Powell, is to incentivize paraprofessional opportunities for growth in the field that don’t require a 5-year (or more) commitment to obtain an advanced degree.

“There are many paths to becoming a therapist,” Powell said. “We have to get creative — particularly in the aftermath of a powerful pandemic overlapping with an uptick in racialized violence, which has created a shadow mental health crisis in our nation.”

Research shows that culturally sensitive therapy is valuable to People of Color, yet the number of appropriately trained culturally competent therapists is lacking.

The APA will educate psychologists on biases and inequitable systems, emphasizing the cultural perspectives and needs of People of Color.

“We will develop standards for research, education, and practice that will help to dismantle systemic racism and imbue the discipline of psychology with respect and fairness for all,” Akbar said.

The key to dismantling racism and healing racial trauma, according to Powell, is to remember, resolve, and reassemble the history and the truth of what happened, move forward with sustained action, and carry out that commitment across generations.

“That’s what it would take for us to achieve the kind of radical healing the APA’s apology is moving us toward,” Powell said. “I believe in the capacity for human beings to heal, grow, and thrive.”

Attaining racial justice in any system won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take everyday acts at the individual level to press those in positions of power to instill structural, systemic change. Systems are made up of individuals, and each of us is part of a system.

“Truth and reconciliation go hand in hand; it has to be an ongoing deliberative process,” Powell said. “It’s not just a one-time apology — it requires a commitment to revisiting those cumulative wounds across history, over time and generations until the work is done. When we actually heal our nation, from centuries of racial divisiveness, everybody will benefit — everyone gets healed.”