American Psychological Association Apologizes for Contributing to Systemic Racism

APA took broad, inclusive, and comprehensive steps to address longstanding racism, both in the field of psychology and by the organization itself, and developed actionable measures to accountably rectify the harm.

In response to the country’s historic reckoning on racism, the American Psychological Association issued a formal apology to communities of color for its role—and the role of the discipline of psychology—in contributing to systemic racism.

The association’s governing body adopted an apology at a recent meeting, acknowledging that APA “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 communities 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,” the apology states.

The resolution, which passed unanimously, acknowledges that “the governing body within APA should have apologized to people of color before today. APA, and many in psychology, have long considered such an apology, but failed to accept responsibility.”

A broad cross-section of APA’s members, including elected and appointed leaders, were responsible for bringing the apology to fruition. But before making the apology, APA first had to define racism. “If we can’t define racism, then how can we act to dismantle it,” said Maysa Akbar, Ph.D., APA’s chief diversity officer.

Once the group passed a resolution defining racism [PDF], it became clear that APA could not move forward without understanding what harms psychology—and APA itself—had created for communities of color. The APA Task Force on Strategies to Eradicate Racism, Discrimination, and Hate, composed of people of color from all different backgrounds, was formed to spearhead an initiative to delve deeper into the issue.

“While we were very careful that people of color were not apologizing to themselves, we did want a task force that would guide the association so that people of color were leading, advising, and guiding the process, assuring that it would be done in the way an apology should be done,” Akbar said.

The task force commissioned a chronology of the long history of damage done to communities of color by psychology and APA. But the voices of people and psychologists of color were notably missing from the record. To get a more accurate picture of the oral history of psychologists of color who are representing communities of color, the task force commissioned listening sessions.

The goal was to capture the historical harms of both the psychologists of color and the communities they serve so APA could craft a more holistic apology. APA also created an open survey for people who could not participate in the listening sessions, which garnered nearly 1,300 respondents.

In constructing the apology, APA followed the guidance of a report with Indigenous origins, The Warrior’s Path, written by APA’s division on ethnic diversity, which helped in creating a clear and meaningful apology. Based on the report, Akbar said, the three elements for an apology are:

  • The apologizer must understand what they are apologizing for.
  • The apologizer must take ownership and responsibility over the harm they have done to the people they have harmed.
  • The apologizer must put in place a process of actionable steps that focuses on repair and reconciliation.

In addition to the apology, APA adopted two other resolutions during the meeting, one delineating APA’s and psychology’s role going forward in dismantling systemic racism in the United States, and the other pledging to work to advance health equity in psychology. The former directs APA’s CEO to develop a long-term plan to prioritize and ensure that the goals identified in the resolution will be achieved.

“For the first time, APA and American psychology are systematically and intentionally examining, acknowledging, and charting a path forward to address their roles in perpetuating racism,” said APA president Jennifer F. Kelly, Ph.D., in a press release. “These resolutions are just the first steps in a long process of reconciliation and healing. This important work will set the path for us to make real change and guide the association and psychology moving forward.”

The American Psychological Association building in Washington, DC. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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