Feature

On Sept. 1, 1967—a time of heightened social tumult and change—Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a historic address to APA members at the association's 75th Annual Convention in Washington, D.C. He minced no words about the race-based problems plaguing the country—calling racism and its effects "deep ... gigantic in extent, and chaotic in detail"—and called on social scientists to play a more active role.

"Negroes want the social scientist to address the white community and ‘tell it like it is'"—to expose the brutal reality of segregated life in the American South, he said. Yet "the social scientist played little or no role in disclosing truth," he charged.

He urged social scientists to "suggest mechanisms to create a wholesome black unity," and the country to "reaffirm our belief in building a democratic society," adding, "I have not lost hope."

Seven months later, just as King's words were going to press in APA's Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 24, No. 1, 1968), the 38-year-old civil rights leader was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Of course, King's dreams did not die with him. Several now well-known psychology researchers and scholars took up King's call for action, highlighting subtle forms of racism and their impact on blacks and others.

The Monitor asked psychology researchers exploring prejudice and racism as well as APA leaders whether Dr. King's 1967 assessment that social scientists were not doing enough to combat racism still rings true today. Here's what they said:

Claude Steele, PhD
University of California, Berkeley, psychologist who developed the theory of stereotype threat

"There is still an awful lot to achieve, but I think Dr. King would be proud of how much psychology has gained and contributed since that time. … I know how much the field has changed, how much its grasp of these things has improved over that 50-year period. The field has gotten so much more diverse in terms of people's backgrounds, but also in terms of [identifying and understanding] the issues that are in front of us."

John F. Dovidio, PhD
Yale University social psychologist known for his work on aversive, or subconscious, racism

"While we have made great strides in understanding the causes, dynamics and consequences of racism, our work on interventions to combat racism still lags behind. Had Dr. King lived longer, he would have taken his message of racial harmony a step further, to recognize and respect that differences, too, would be critical for achieving the true justice that was his goal."

Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD
Psychologist, Spelman College president emerita and author of "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations about Race"

"In general, we as a society are not doing enough to address racism. Too often we think of racism as ‘individual acts of meanness' rather than as institutionalized policies and practices that systematically advantage whites and disadvantage people of color. While there has been path-breaking social science research relevant to racism—such as the work on stereotype threat, unconscious bias, the power of diverse groups and the negative effects of tracking [separating pupils by academic ability]—social science knowledge is not being used as effectively as it should to dismantle racism because, collectively, we still don't want to talk about race. You can't solve a problem if you can't talk about it. For that reason, Dr. King's words still ring true. 

Change is possible, but it won't happen without our active effort and focused intention on uprooting racism, and the other ‘isms' in our society."

Antonio E. Puente, PhD
APA 2017 president, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington

"In re-reading Dr. Martin Luther King's speech within the context of 2017, I believe the images borne by King resonate today as much as they did in 1967. Much is left to do to fully address his call to action, but the advocacy provided by APA and psychology in this year's health-care debate embraces the spirit that Rev. King espoused. We have secured substance abuse treatment and mental and behavioral health care for 24 million [additional] people, and have forcefully sent a message to the world that in the United States, health care is a mandate for all." 

Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD
APA 2017 president-elect, the first African-American woman to serve as APA president, associate professor in psychology, department of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

"Dr. Martin Luther King's 1967 speech remains relevant today because race and ethnicity continue to matter in the United States. He advocated for research that would produce more understanding for both blacks and whites.

However, the lack of a critical mass of research psychologists of color and other researchers who understand the various racial/ethnic groups in this country creates a void in our knowledge about the factors that contribute to the success of marginalized groups. Consider the recent film, "Hidden Figures," based on a book written by a black woman that introduced Americans to an unseen group of black women who made substantial contributions to the space program. What if a psychologist had studied these women to ascertain the factors contributing to their academic achievement and resiliency in a racist environment?

Research focused on strengths in the various racial/ethnic cultural groups that reside in the United States would affirm members of those groups and inform both members of racial/ethnic groups and nonmembers about how to incorporate group-specific strengths into interventions."

Melba J.T. Vasquez, PhD
APA's first Latina president (2011), independent practitioner, Austin, Texas

"Dr. Martin Luther King's powerful 1967 address to the APA ended with the words, ‘these have been difficult days for every civil rights leader, for every lover of justice and peace.' Those sentiments are so true today, and are applicable to so many contemporary social and racial justice concerns. He also stated that, ‘White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject.'

APA is a microcosm of U.S. society, and it seems that these days, the majority of U.S. society cares about diversity, health disparities, violent extremism, social inequality and social problems. However, it also seems that too many of us continue to reject the degree to which racism poisons and permeates all of our institutions, producing unjust inequities. Not enough of us are sufficiently horrified by police shootings of black and brown bodies, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and cruel immigration policies that tear families apart and deny the most vulnerable of our world's war-torn and economically devastated populations—most of whom have much to offer to us—physical safety and compassion.

APA has produced several evidence-based reports designed to improve psychologists' and policymakers understanding of the psychological factors related to many of the grand challenges of society. But it is not enough. APA must continue to evolve in our organizational structure and processes and, importantly, continue to support research and practice to effectively address these challenges. APA should strive to make Dr. King's call for research in the service of social justice an inspirational memory in the history of our journey to justice and healing, rather than a continued urgent unmet plea fueling human suffering."

Read the full speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/speech-american-psychological-association.