APA Apologizes for Role in Racism and Eugenics

Although long overdue, the American Psychological Association on October 29 issued an apology to people of color and indigenous people for the role of psychologists, including many leaders of APA, in promoting racism and eugenics thoughout the formative years of the profession. Accompanying the apology is a remarkable historical timeline of events documenting the role of psychologists in promoting white supremacy, racism, and eugenics. Finally, the APA also passed a resolution which calls on psychologists to work toward ending racism.

For the first time, I have been teaching a course in the history of psychology this semester and have covered some of this ground. Especially in considering the role of G. Stanley Hall, Lewis Terman, Paul Popenoe, Robert Yerkes, Henry Goddard and others, one must confront that at least one purpose for which these men did their work was to promote “race betterment” via eugenics policies.

This is the dark side of the history of psychology and we cannot avoid it. I am pleased to see these documents and statements from the current APA leaders. Perhaps, one of the most important immediate benefits will be to confront the same attitudes which seem increasingly common today.

So Who Could Be Against This?

When the statement was released, The Bell Curve author Charles Murray had this response.

You may remember Murray’s policy recommendations from The Bell Curve relating to government assistance to poor people:

“The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended.”

Murray’s advice is a barely sanitized version of a eugenicist’s dream. For instance, Charles Goethe, founder of the California Eugenics Society wrote this letter to the editor in the Sacramento Courier Journal in 1953.

This same Goethe visited German in 1934 and then wrote fellow Human Betterment Foundation member E.S. Gosney:

You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought and particularly by the work of the Human Betterment Foundation. I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.”

This was published in the organization’s newsletter and thus available to psychologist Lewis Terman and marriage counselor Paul Popenoe who were members of the Human Betterment Foundation.

The APA steps forward with regret that psychology in the form of scientific racism and intelligence testing was used to promote sterilization, discrimination and racism, and some people today still object. I say it is about time and their reasonable service.

35 thoughts on “APA Apologizes for Role in Racism and Eugenics”

  1. If you read these “apologies” from APA, you will see, that eugenics issue is a relatively small part as if taken as a whole, it is the promotion of a highly biased political ideology. Like I said before, different people are entitled to have their political opinions, but if those who claim to be mental health professionals use their opinions as facts in order to persecute me, or my family for not agreeing with APA about CRT/white privelege/systemic racism and about how many genders are there, then it becomes a huge problem. I am worried how many psychologists would be justifying of taking away children from their parents who are conservative, especially Bible-based Christians, because in the minds of these psychologists, such parents are bigots who cause harm to their children, as a result of these and other APA resolutions.

    1. Eugenics was largely based on racism and if you knew anything about its history in the 1st half of the 1900s you would know it was not “relatively small.”

      Once again you attempt to deflect the conversation from the real issues to spread FUD on a topic you seem to know little about.

      1. I never said that eugenics was relatively small issue in the first half of the 1900s, I said that the subject of eugenics was relatively small in recent APA’s resolutions as compared to the subject of systemic racism and how APA wants to dismantle it. The latter subject deals with the present and gives me serious concerns about the future.

        1. You never answered these questions before, so let try again:

          Do you think racism is a serious problem in the US?

          How significant do you think systemic racism is in the problems facing blacks (and other minorities) in the US today?

          What other issues do you think are contributing to these problems and how significant do you think these other issues are?

          1. I would like to direct you to this thread:

            I have addressed these questions over there.

          2. No I didn’t ask you these questions in that thread, so you never answered them. All that thread shows is you didn’t understand what systemic racism is. Apparently you haven’t learned much since then.

          3. To answer your first two questions: I would say, both yes and no, because they are so complex and it really depends on different specific situations.

            As for the third question, I have already provided information several times.

          4. Racism is a serious and complex problem, and faulting only white Europeans for it, is very simplistic as far as I can see.

          5. Who else is responsible for the significant racial imbalances (in housing, employment, heath care, the justice system, etc) in the US today?

            While whites are NOT the only ones who can be racist, they are the ones who set up (and maintained) the power structures in the US for centuries. Although, the overtly racist laws, policies have been rescinded, the effects of those laws are influencing policies and attitudes in the US today. And if you would bother to educate your self about what CRT is (and what it actually teaches) rather than just listening to the propaganda against it, you might see a bit farther.

          6. I don’t see anyone doing that. That said, Jim Crow and the KKK, and the institutional racism that grew from them were not driven by Asians and Latinos. If we want to be honest, we need to acknowledge that whites in the US certainly carry the heaviest burden of culpability.

    2. I am worried how many psychologists would be justifying of taking away children from their parents who are conservative, especially Bible-based Christians

      Do you know how ridiculous this sounds? I don’t think I’ve heard of the APA or the government going after Flat Earthers, Chem Trail seers, and Moon Landing deniers whether they are Bible believing Christians or not. Bigotry and discrimination are not against the law when exercised unofficially and racism has become a leading characteristic of the Republican Party. You poor little Bible believing Christian if this is what keeps you up at night. Such a victim.

      Plus, you owe the APA and its members an apology.

      1. The APA resolutions on systemic racism was done by a small number of people of the entire organization. That small number happens to represent the governing body of APA, like board of directors and CEO of any company. With this being said, there are many APA members who are on both sides, and I am wondering which proportion of psychologists is in line with the pro-CRT political agenda that these resolutions imply. There is definitely a strong animus for conservatives in the mental health profession, but there are also psychologists, counselors, and social workers who are socially conservative and I believe that these resolutions will only intensify the tiff that’s already been there. It should be noted about the timing these resolutions were passed. It happened amid fierce complaints among parents throughout the country about teaching CRT and their likes to their children in schools. It is also interesting to note that last week there has been a victory for Glen Youngkin in Virginia gubernatorial elections, and what helped him to win was his opposition to all that CRT/systemic racism indoctrination and that gives hope for conservatives in that state for at least four years.

          1. No he will not. Answering your questions is too much to ask of someone who’s digital footprint illustrates in his own navel-gazing victim mentality.

    3. I am worried how many psychologists would be justifying of taking away
      children from their parents who are conservative, especially Bible-based
      Christians, because in the minds of these psychologists, such parents
      are bigots who cause harm to their children, as a result of these and
      other APA resolutions.

      Fantasies about persecution complexes and victimization is all that’s left when your political ideology becomes bankrupt, and it’s a great way to deny all responsibility for everything you perceive to be wrong with society. There’s always someone else to blame…

  2. I often read how various news organizations report on the same news stories. I found it interesting to see that one major news org didn’t report this story at all. In fact the last article (an opinion piece not a news story) they published about the APA was a 6 years ago.

  3. The reference to Charles Murray and The Bell Curve prompted me to go back to a video by one of my favorite YouTube authors, “Shaun”, who did a two-hour-forty-minute investigation of the book (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBc7qBS1Ujo&ab_channel=Shaun), in which he quotes (and confirms) Bob Herbert’s summation in the New York Times: “The Bell Curve [is] a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship.”

  4. As important an acknowledgement as this is, I am getting leery of the insistence of some to judge people of the past by the standards of today. It is wrong to ignore the mistakes (and not a few horrors), but it is also calling penalties after changing the rules.

    And it means nothing if we do not also remember that those who follow us will judge us, too. And that judgment will be brutal on some matters.

    1. I understand the point and I don’t think we will see any articles removed or presidencies removed posthumously. I do think it is valuable to do the historical work and say the history is flawed and we are responsible as a profession for more than just being people of our time. The very tools of psychologists (tests, journals, conferences, counseling) were used for sinister ends. There has to be a point where it officially ends and someone in leadership says enough. In addition, there were people at the time saying the opposite, e.g., Otto Klineberg who, in 1931, said the races were not different and the evidence is clear that social and contextual factors explain the individual differences.

      1. We have to recognize (and I know you do) that among many prominent people, eugenics was thought to be a laudable solution to many problems. It was not seen the way we see it now.

        Earlier, slavery was thought to be part of the natural order of the races, and had biblical backing. (In fact, damning slavery meant calling the Bible into question, as slavery was a feature, not a bug, in much of it.)

        In the 1980s thousands of “professionals” believed there were hundreds of secret groups kidnaping children and sexually abusing them, even killing them, in satanic rituals. Thousands of people were imprisoned over ridiculous claims. I saw a woman come into a courtroom and surrender her parental rights because she believed she had been raised by a murderous cult of satanists and was a danger to her own children. It was years before she understood that none of it was true. The prominent psychiatrist who convinced her of all this worked at a prominent Chicago hospital. And it was all BS.

        This myth was believed by the police, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and the FBI. These people had tremendous credibility. They were professionals in their fields. They gave extensive training to parents and law enforcement about this totally insane “phenomenon”. They believed it sincerely. It’s easy to point and laugh at these people now. At the time it was heresy to question it. So I’m a little more understanding of people who get ensnared in dangerous belief systems.

        1. Simply because “thousands of professionals” believed something, is not an excuse for violating the basic principles of evidence and reason.

          The “Satanic Panic” to which you are referring was not a case of “they didn’t have sufficient scientific understanding back then” or “those were different times.” It was the result media and religious groups over-hyping such stories and feeding into a general hysteria.

          As for those psychologists,psychiatrists that did contribute to this hysteria, they were wrong too.

          1. Many of the people pushing the mass molestation narrative were using accepted psychological techniques and principles of the time. They thought they had good evidence.

            The reason the panic gained traction was precisely because it was the experts promoting it. The FBI is not in the practice of seeking guidance from the clergy or the media, nor is state law enforcement.

            And people were ruined, families destroyed, hundreds incarcerated over a lie.

          2. SOME experts where promoting the whole “recovery of repressed memories” which is what added a great deal of fuel to the whole “Satanic Panic” hysteria.

            Even back then there were criticism of the “technique”. However, it was the “experts” pushing the repressed memory issue that got the attention from the media, the courts and the churches, because those perspectives got the ratings, the convictions and the people coming to church to “fight against Satan.”

    2. However, this analysis isn’t judging by a different set of standards. The standards for scientific analysis are still largely the same. The problem was, previously, the researchers allowed their personal biases to prejudice their interpretation of the data. Something that still has to be guarded against today. As Warren pointed out, Murray still has the same bias problems as the researchers from a century ago.

      1. See my response to Professor Throckmorton, above.

        We don’t know near as much as we think. Our capacity for belief in terrible ideas is vast. Sadly, there are researchers and scientists who ignore contrary data, and some who fudge their own data, and some who create their data out of whole cloth.

        The Road to Hell is still open for traffic. The destination is the same.

        1. “there are researchers and scientists who ignore contrary data, and some
          who fudge their own data, and some who create their data out of whole

          And simply because they did these things a century ago doesn’t excuse them anymore than it excuses them today.

          1. I wasn’t talking about the past. I was talking about the present. I don’t know what data was fudged in the past. I know some of the data has been fudged in the present.

            Which makes me very hesitant to take the “past” at face value, especially when making judgments. I’m more concerned with understanding the past than making judgments about it and, specifically, the players of the time. We are awfully quick to demonize historical figures. Not all of them deserve it. My only point, really.

          2. “Not all of them deserve it.”

            perhaps not, but some of them do. further, where in the APA statements (or Warren’s post) was anyone being “demonized”?

    3. I have this discussion sometimes in the context of my specialty of early baseball history. Adrian “Cap” Anson was a top player from the 1870s into the 1890s. Take a look at his numbers. They are impressive. He also worked to establish the color line in baseball, very publicly refusing to play games with teams that included Black players. The “standards of the day” defense inevitably arises.

      I divide people into three groups for purposes of this discussion. There is a small group working for social progress, whatever the issue under consideration might be. There is another, sadly usually larger, group actively opposing social progress, and indeed working to reverse what progress has already occurred. Then there is a vastly larger middle group trying to get through the day. This middle group tends to casually adopt the attitudes of the day, but these attitudes aren’t how they define themselves.

      So when assessing some person from history, my question is not do they adhere to modern standards, but rather which group did they belong to? Anson had agency. Being an active racist was not the only option available to him. He could easily have placed himself in the middle group. This would make him a racist by today’s standards, but a casual one. No one today would give a second thought to his attitudes on race. He could have worked to promote integration in baseball. Such people did exist. This was a possibility within the culture of the day. Had he done this, today he would be regarded as a hero. But he chose to make promoting racism a signature issue. If that’s how he wanted to be regarded, who are we to whitewash it?

      In other words, “standards of the day” is a valid consideration, but not a get-out-of-jail card, as it so often is used.

      1. We are formed by what we learn as children and what we learn through socialization, what society teaches us of values, what, if religious, our clergy and congregations teach us, what our schools teach us, what our social class teaches us.

        I am not suggesting a “get out of jail free” card for anyone. And you should understand that future generations might view you as gravely mistaken about just about everything. You are a product of circumstances you are at best dimly aware of. So are we all.

        But there has been an orgy of post mortem righteousness.

        I watch reruns of Seinfeld, a show I followed faithfully when it came out. And I know that even this show would be torn to shreds by our current morality definers. I’m not talking about something from the ’50s: The show ran 30 years ago. Yet every episode I see now would gravely offend someone now.

        What arrogance.

        1. “And you should understand that future generations might view you as gravely mistaken about just about everything.”

          I would hope that they do. If society is to evolve then we should welcome the scrutiny subsequent generations have for previous ones, understanding that betterment involves such a focus. The individual or society that can’t embrace scrutiny is surely hiding something, and it’s way easy to spot the conservative and the progressive in conversations like these.

        2. We are in agreement about there being no get-out-of-jail-free card. The difference is that I have laid out a set of criteria for how to assess the past. I have no idea what standard you use. So far you have only given examples of people you think should get a pass. Do you have any examples of people who should not?

  5. What an impressive and detailed resolution. I can see how such documents will continue to be useful in the years to come for the APA and related professions.

    A great model for U.S. Evangelicals as well. Imagine how much work the SBC, as just one example, would need to do in order to produce a parallel statement paired with action.

  6. Good to know. The APA, in its formative years, took a lot of wrong turns. The encouragement of eugenics was a poison pill that still affects the attitudes of too many people. The sooner those and similar attitudes change, the better. I’m glad the APA has seen and apologized for its errors, and I hope they work very hard to correct them.

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