The Psychology of Racism and Nonviolence

Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH


May 26, 2021

As part of this year's annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, which was held virtually, I organized and chaired a session that gathered three experts to reflect on the racial protests and debates of the past year.

The first speaker was Dr Charles Collyer, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Rhode Island and co-author of the classic text Nonviolence: Origins and Outcomes. Collyer spoke on "Nonviolence vs racism: Direct and indirect strategies." He described his many decades of teaching nonviolence in workshops with college students, who he observed often respond by considering novel ways of handling conflict nonviolently and expressing a wish to have been exposed to such teaching earlier in life. Collyer advised that learning should not just be direct and didactic, but indirect and example-based. As teachers, we need to show in our own interactions how to live and engage with others nonviolently.

He also shared his belief that violence itself is a sign of failure, even in times when it may seem justified, such as the war against Hitler's Nazism. Such extreme situations occur because of prior failures at being nonviolent. For example, World War II was partly a consequence of the violence of World War I.

The second speaker was Dr Steven O. Roberts, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University and a leading researcher in the psychology of racism. Roberts presented findings showing that race has an implicit and often tacit effect on how psychologists interpret research. In one unpublished study presented by Roberts, a mostly White editorial board was found to be less likely to publish the research of non-White psychologists. In another unpublished example, a fictional drug study was interpreted differently on the basis of whether participants were Black or White — and on the basis of the study reviewers' race as well. Roberts argued for a need to achieve a diverse racial mix of not only research study participants but of psychologists themselves (eg, among journal editorial boards).

The third speaker was Dr Clayborne Carson, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr King, entrusted Carson with many of her husband's papers and materials, which Carson has since organized and documented in the institute, in addition to his extensive efforts as an author and researcher on the history of the civil rights and student movements.

...the recent Black Lives Matter movement also is a movement of the people that will grow organically on its own.

Carson warned intellectuals and academics against attempting to interpret racism and nonviolence for others. He noted that the civil rights movement of the 1960s was not a top-down phenomenon but rather was built from the bottom up by student leaders on the streets and the masses who rallied together. He held that the recent Black Lives Matter movement also is a movement of the people that will grow organically on its own.

In a taped presentation, Rev. James Lawson, a civil rights leader and close friend of Dr King, made the point that the term "civil rights" is not entirely accurate because of its 19th century post–Civil War era origins; it was intended to help obtain full citizenship rights for freed slaves. Rather, the 1960s movement should be termed the "freedom movement," he said, because it was about obtaining full freedom for Black people by ending segregation and expanding voting rights and economic well-being.

This was followed by a live discussion between Collyer and Roberts, who engaged on the topic of self-esteem, the experience of being made to feel inferior based on one's race, and how violent reaction can be a way to reject that sense of inferiority. The psychological impact of racism thus may lead to violence, making a nonviolent response more complex and difficult to achieve.

The symposium ended by recalling Dr King's keynote address to the 1967 APA meeting, the main thesis of which was that it is good to be "maladjusted" to social ills. Psychologists and psychiatrists often seek to make us "adjusted," happy individuals, whereas Dr King argued that we should instead be maladjusted when living in a society rife with evils like racism. In fact, he insisted, the future of mankind lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH, is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center and a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He is the author of several general-interest books on psychiatry. He is employed currently at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of his employers.

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