Behind the Scenes of APA’s Historic Apology for Contributing to Systemic Racism
The landmark action last fall by the American Psychological Association came together quickly, but it reflects the organization’s long-standing willingness to move important conversations forward.
The American Psychological Association’s groundbreaking apology for the field’s contribution to systemic racism had been the subject of discussion inside the organization for years—but then, with a series of decisive leadership moves, it turned into action.
It was a relatively quick public step for an organization of APA’s size and complexity (about 121,000 members). Work involving an honest assessment of the association’s past harmful conduct, and determining how to correct it, could have taken years. Instead, it was finished in six months, culminating in the adoption of a resolution by the APA Council of Representatives in October 2021.
“In general, this was very long overdue,” said APA Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Maysa Akbar. “While APA has devoted a lot of effort into building out their equity, diversity, and inclusion work since the ’60s, what we’ve seen is that the work was largely uncoordinated.”
A Firm Deadline
Dr. Cathy Faye, executive director of the Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron, was brought in to lead the historic research process that anchored the apology. Faye credited Jennifer Kelly, APA’s then-president, for making a critical call.
“The president made a firm decision—she wanted this project to be completed during her presidency—which I think was a good thing, because it [had] sort of dragged on for a very long time,” Faye said.
Kelly’s hard deadline brought the project to APA’s front burner. And while it created complications from a research standpoint—because of time constraints, Kelly’s team had to rely on existing research to draw its conclusions rather than uncovering original insights—it helped the organization speak out on an important issue in a timely fashion.
“Things tend to move both too slowly and too quickly within APA, I think as a general sense of things,” Faye said. “And both of those sides of the coin are complicated.”
A Clear Definition
Akbar pointed to the efforts by the organization to establish a clear definition of racism, which helped shape both the historical research and the eventual apology.
“It took the collective membership, took the form of elected leaders and our board of directors and everyone involved to say, ‘Let’s define this,’” Akbar said. ”Once we define it, let’s make sure that we look at our history. Once we look at our history, let’s make sure that we issue an authentic, genuine apology for it.”
She added that the definition and the methodical approach to crafting the apology are now helping the organization determine concrete next steps as the association advances further DEI initiatives.
“It really helps us to understand how we’re going to move into the future,” she said. “Our future as a discipline is where we’re going to be able to distinctly say, ‘Here’s how we will not operate anymore because of what we know now.’ And with knowing that level of insight comes a whole lot of responsibility.”
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