Race, Racism, and Psychology: Towards a Reflexive History

By Graham Richards | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

'Race' in US Psychology to 1945: II. The rise of anti-racism

By the late 1920s a new civil rights movement was on the move. In 1924 Marcus Garvey had founded the Negro Political Union, journals such as H.L. Mencken's American Mercury were publishing pro-'Negro' and black-authored articles, and William DuBois's Pan-Africanist aspirations were being promoted by the NAACP's journal Crisis (which he edited until 1934). The general upsurge in African American cultural activity (notably the New York-based 'Harlem Renaissance') generated much discussion of the 'new Negro' in contemporary social commentary. 1 On the academic front the black historian C.G. Woodson had founded the Journal of Negro History and African American sociologists were also beginning to publish. Psychology however, its orientation to 'race' still being dominated by eugenics and Race Psychology, lagged about a decade behind in this respect. After 1930 the Depression exacerbated black dissatisfaction, with a major riot in Harlem in 1935, a mood finding eloquent literary expression in Richard Wright's novel Native Son (1940), 2 though politically this was somewhat off-set by the dominance of Rooseveltian 'New Deal' liberalism. Lynchings and the continuing, highly publicised, activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the South meanwhile reinforced white liberal anti-racism. 3 It was a climate to which Psychologists, increasingly confronted with the political and moral implications of the 'race' issue, were bound to respond. Nor, in the light of events in Germany, could the matter any longer be construed as an exclusively domestic US concern. Attacks on Race Psychology thus intensified throughout the 1930s, resulting, by 1940, in a victory for the anti-racist camp which lasted until the 1960s. From a 1990s perspective the terms of this overwhelmingly white-authored 'anti-racism' discourse in Psychology often (though not always) appear naive or patronising and occasionally overcompromising. It would though be naive to imagine it could have been otherwise.


BARKAN'S THESIS

Regarding this period, Barkan (1992) proposes a thesis which is particularly relevant to us. In genetics and physical anthropology, the disciplines most centrally concerned with race, the abandonment of Scientific Racism was, he argues, rationalised by, not derived from, changing scientific knowledge. Scientific understanding of race in these disciplines was, he claims, highly confused and ambiguous.

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