This post is written by Thomas Teo, York University and is part of a special series of bibliographies on topics in the history of psychology.
Adapted from: Teo, T. (2008). Race and psychology. In W. A. Darity (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (2nd ed.) (Vol. 7, pp. 21-24). Detroit, MI: Macmillan.
Before the formal institutionalization of psychology in the nineteenth century, academics attributed psychological qualities to specific ethnic groups (doing so can even be found in Aristotle’s writings). However, the systematic combination of psychological characteristics with race occurred in the eighteenth century when Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) combined varieties of humans (“races”) with psychological and social characteristics in his taxonomy. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) advanced the concept of the Caucasian based on his idea that European culture originated in the Caucasus. The term Caucasian, still used in empirical studies of psychology, has no scientific validity.
In the second half of nineteenth century some European scholars suggested that the Caucasian variety divided into two branches, identified as Semites and Aryans. Both were associated with different psychological characteristics and formed the theoretical basis for Hitler’s ideology. In the 1860s John Langdon H. Down (1829-1896) studied the structure and function of various organs in idiots and imbeciles. He observed a group of individuals that he characterized as having round faces, flattened skulls, extra folds of skin over their eyelids, protruding tongues, short limbs, and retardation of motor and mental abilities. Down classified this group on the basis of their resemblance to racial groups. He suggested that the physical features and behavioral attributes of these individuals represented typical Mongols – hence the term Mongolism for what is now called Down syndrome.
Pioneers of social psychology such as Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) combined in their race psychology intellectual ability, emotion, and volition with an ideology of race. Le Bon understood races as physiologically and psychologically distinct entities that shared an immutable race soul. Paul Broca (1824-1880) was convinced that non-European races were inferior and used a variety of scientific studies to prove his preconceived conviction. Francis Galton (1822-1911) argued that Europeans were by nature more intelligent than primitive races and suggested the quantification of levels of racial intelligence. In the United States, pioneers of psychology such as Granville Stanley Hall (1844-1924), the first president of the American Psychological Association, argued that lower races were in a state adolescence, a claim that provided a justification for segregation.
Empirical race psychology was prominent and influential during the first half of the 20th century. Race psychologists used the accepted methods of the discipline and applied them to the empirical comparison of various groups. An early example is the research emerging from the Cambridge Torres Straits Expedition that produced psycho-physiological data on racial differences. Many race-psychological studies were used to demonstrate the inferiority of certain races and thus were part of the program of scientific racism. American race psychologists performed empirical studies on the background of immigration and the fear of the decline of national stock. They participated in empirically “evidencing” the inferiority of Southern and Eastern Europeans and African-Americans.
Based on the results of the Army Mental Tests, administered to 1.75 million American recruits during World War I, it was concluded that there were inborn racial differences between Whites and Blacks, and among various European races. Psychological studies played a role in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 that imposed quotas on so-called less intelligent nations from Europe. Leading American psychologists, including the American Psychological Association presidents Robert M. Yerkes (1876-1956), who played a decisive role in the army testing, and Lewis Terman (1877-1956), who supported segregated education, participated in race psychology. Popular in race psychology was also the study of the mulatto hypothesis, which suggested that a greater proportion of white “blood” in one’s black ancestry would lead to higher intelligence.
Most of the empirical studies on race executed during this period in North America and Europe were unable to overcome prejudicial ideas. Research found differences and these differences were frequently interpreted in racist terms. Those studies were also unable to challenge the cultural meaning of psychological instruments, concepts, theories, and methods. After World War II and the international recognition that racism was an integral component of the atrocities committed in the name of racial superiority in Europe and Asia, empirical race psychology, which could not overcome its racist connotations, declined significantly. However, contemporary studies on differences among races on intelligence tests continue a racist legacy when these differences are interpreted as representing essential racial divisions in mental life or when ideas of inferiority or superiority are invoked.
Social psychologists began, already since the 1930s, to shift away from studying race differences to researching prejudice. Some racial studies assumed a different meaning and were performed in the context of challenging racism, especially in the United States, where racial conflict, injustice, and discrimination were still part of the experience. Kenneth Clark (1914-1995) and Mamie Clark (1917-1983) performed a variety of studies in order to demonstrate the negative impact of prejudice, racism, and discrimination on African-American identity. The best-known studies included a “doll test” that assessed whether African-American children preferred to play with a brown or white doll and which color they considered nice. Many of the children preferred and considered the white doll nice. The Clarks interpreted the results as showing that Black children had low self-worth, an argument that played a role in court cases for desegregation and also in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, in which the US Supreme Court judged segregation to be unconstitutional.
However, in Great Britain and in North America on the background of the civil rights movement, Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and early educational compensatory programs such as Head Start, a movement emerged that produced a dedicated and high-profile group of researchers that were personally and ideologically committed to a naturalistic concept of race. In 1969 Arthur Jensen published in the Harvard Educational Review an article that challenged the idea of the value of compensatory education. He also suggested that because intelligence had a heritable component, it seemed reasonable to hypothesize that genetic factors might play a role in producing racial differences in IQ. His argument was speculative but had an enormous impact on psychology and society.
In 1994 Herrnstein and Murray suggested in the book The Bell Curve that genetic differences might be involved in producing racial differences in IQ. Again, they provided no evidence for this speculation. Beginning in the 1990s J. Philippe Rushton promoted his ideas of a racial hierarchy. He presupposed the existence of three major races (Orientals, Whites, Blacks) and has argued that there is a three-way pattern of differences in brain size, IQ, and behavior. For Rushton, Whites and Asian have larger brains and are more intelligent than Blacks because gathering food, providing shelter, making clothes, and raising children during the long winters were more mentally demanding. Rushton has not provided any genetic evidence for his interpretations that genes cause racial IQ differences.
The genetic speculations of contemporary race researchers in psychology take place on the background of anthropological and biological research that emphasizes understanding race as a socio-historical and not as a natural-biological category. Empirical differences are not interpreted as inborn and reflecting a natural hierarchy but as variations that must be understood on the background of culture. Advancements in genetic analyses have shown that the variation within traditionally conceptualized races is much larger than between them. Instead of three or five races one should assume several thousand populations that are changing. Empirical studies that include race as a variable are now often motivated by the idea that a socio-historical concept of “race” should be taken into account when making generalizations in psychology.
Despite the results of the human genome project and advancements in human population genetics, ideological struggles continue. Psychologists and its organizations have been publishing increasingly on race and psychology in the genome era. Although many psychologists suggest that the results from genomic research demonstrate that a biological concept of race is not tenable in psychology, others disagree. Empirically evident from the history of race psychology is that scientific methods are not sufficient to prevent bias, prejudice, and racism. In fact, empirical research has been used to support racism. Finally, it must be emphasized that much of race psychology has participated in epistemological violence [Teo, T. (2008). From speculation to epistemological violence in psychology: A critical-hermeneutic reconstruction. Theory & Psychology, 18(1), 47-67], meaning that psychologists have produced and distributed interpretations, presented as knowledge, which have negatively shaped the life, health, and opportunities of minorities.
Bernasconi, R. (Ed.). (2001). Concepts of race in the eighteenth century (Vol. 1-8). Bristol, England: Thoemmes. [The 8 volumes contain reprints of classical books on race in their original languages (English, German, Latin, French) including Bernier, Linnaeus, Maupertuis, Buffon, Kant, Forster, Blumenbach, Smith, Girtanner, White]
Bernasconi, R. (2001) (Ed.). Race. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. [Contains philosophical discussions of race]
Bindman, D. (2002). Ape to Apollo: Aesthetics and the idea of race in the 18th century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. [Relationship between aesthetics and racial arguments]
Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. [Sophisticated contemporary arguments]
Valls, A. (Ed.). (2005). Race and racism in modern philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.
Social Science Concerns
Back, L., & Solomos, J. (Eds.). (2000). Theories of race and racism: A reader. New York: Routledge. [This reader contains important 20th century discussions on race and racism]
Hannaford, I. (1996). Race: The history of an idea in the West. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. [Historical reconstruction]
Jackson, J. P., & Weidman, N. M. (2004). Race, racism, and science: Social impact and interaction. Santa Barbara, CA: Abc-Clio. [Excellent didactic overview]
Malik, K. (1996). The meaning of race: Race, history and culture in Western Society. New York: New York University Press.
Montagu, A. (1974). Man’s most dangerous myth: The fallacy of race (fifth edition revised and enlarged). New York: Oxford University Press. [Classical]
Gould, S. J. (1996). The mismeasure of man (revised and expanded). New York: Norton. [“Classical” analysis that includes the role of many important psychologists]
Richards, G. (1997). “Race”, racism and psychology: Towards a reflexive history. London: Routledge. [must read]
Tucker, W. H. (1994). The science and politics of racial research. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. [must read]
Tucker, W. H. (2002). The funding of scientific racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Winston, A. S. (Ed.). (2004). Defining difference: Race and racism in the history of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. [must read]
Those interested in further readings on race and racism in psychology may wish to consult the syllabus of Teo’s recent graduate course on the topic.
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