Scientific Racism of the 19th Century

Its Enduring Legacy of Disparaging Psychological Practices Still Impacts Us Today

This post references readings from the book A History of Modern Psychology in Context, authored by Alexandra Rutherford and Wade E. Pickren. Specifically, my writings below are inspired by Chapters 6 and 7, which provide:

  • an in-depth, historical account of the development of the practice of Psychology in the delivery of mental health services,
  • the scientific and practical value of mental tests and their social utility,
  • and the spread of psychological ideas among the American public.

Additional mentions of a separate scholarly journal article from 2010, entitled Sexual Orientation Differences as Deficits: Science and Stigma in the History of American Psychology and authored by Gregory M. Herek, are also referenced.

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Reading Chapters 6 and 7 (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010) against the backdrop of today’s social unrest is jaw-dropping, especially in light of how often we hear push back and denials from some who claim systemic racism does not exist.

It is, in candor, horrific to learn that the field of Psychology, directly and indirectly, helped reinforce and “bake in” systemic racist positions from the 19th century towards African Americans, other minorities, and immigrant populations that still affect (or maybe more like infect?) our society today to some degree.

Of course, I realize the contexts of yesteryear. I grasp how political and societal cultures of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries influenced Psychology and vice versa. Yet despite having this so-called understanding, I’m still sickened and disheartened nonetheless.

And that’s because above and beyond how wrong scientific racism was then, we’re not just talking about a singular moment or an encapsulated era of scientific racism defined by a clear start and end date.

Rather, we’re talking about holistically damaging practices, top-to-bottom distorted beliefs, and skewed mindsets which have shaped the breadth of American society’s underpinnings at every socio-economic level as well as laws and government policies, many of which still linger to some degree in our modern times.

It’s interesting to note Pickren and Rutherford (2020) indicate it wasn’t until America entered into World War II (historically cited as December 7, 1941) that psychologists of color were able to start countering much of the studies to date promoting the idea(s) that non-Whites were, for all intents and purposes, significantly inferior (p. 164).

By 1941, the discipline of Psychology and its various theories had been rather mainstream since the late 1800s to early 1900s.

This is indicative of how far into mainstream Psychology (by at least 50-75 years) non-Whites could even begin earning the education (often from predominantly White academic institutions) required to dispute inferiority claims or findings often born from tenets of the day favoring “eminent” whites from Europe; an idea inspired by statistician and psychologist Francis Galton and his eugenic theories (p. 121).

And when such scientifically racist ideas were coupled with social Darwinistic thinking (p. 161), non-Whites had almost no hope or way to change perceptions unless they began to do it themselves, which they seemingly did (pp. 161-164).

Circling back to how Psychology, despite all the rich goodness it can and has imparted, be used by the influential or powerful to dehumanize populations and “politically unreliable people” (such as Hitler did with the Jews) (p. 187), and to stigmatize and socially ostracize (in horrifically humiliating ways) segments of society (such as occurred with homosexuals) (Herek, 2010, p. 2), is just deplorable.

Specifically, learning of the “studies” performed on homosexuals to help rid them of their homosexuality — such as lobotomy, electroshock, and castration — in the name of “curing a malady” (to the point of making gays being examined feel or become suicidal), is unspeakably cruel and not the way to treat a fellow human being and member of our shared mankind.

Such learnings serve as unfortunate but great reminders of the hyper-fragility of Psychology; how it can be easily turned on a dime to serve more for twisted evil than for societal good.

Moreover, it’s disheartening to learn stigmas applied by way of Psychology were seemingly inspired or dictated by the desire for power (those who had it and/or those who sought it). Herek (2010) spotlights an example of societal stigmatism in his reference of “structural sexual stigma” (p. 2), in which he explains stems from heterosexism.

As a core component of society’s institutions, heterosexism ensures that nonheterosexuals have less power than heterosexuals by promoting a heterosexual assumption:

“All people are presumed to be heterosexual, and heterosexual behavior and different-sex relationships are considered normal, natural, and unproblematic” (Herek, 2009).

One more observation worth noting is Herek’s (2010) multiple mentions of Psychology’s illness model in terms of homosexuals.

Before the practice of positive psychology, the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive (“Positive psychology,” 2020), was formalized, the brunt of Psychology has been entrenched in an illness model for decades, if not centuries. Therefore, outside of Herek’s (2010) noteworthy comments in terms of homosexuals being viewed as deviants, ergo “ill” and treated as if they possessed an undesirable malady in need of treatment, “illness model” views far surpass homosexual treatments of long ago. In fact, most of Chapters 6 and 7 emphasize how often Psychology was frequently leveraged to treat or address something in need of attention or repair.

While Pickren and Rutherford (2010) do highlight the great awareness of “interior life and a sense of private self” (p. 150) that permeated American society throughout the 19th century, the preponderance of examples explaining which psychologist(s) did this or that heavily lean more on how psychology could address the ills of society, politics, and commerce.

The main character in Versailles is, as one might expect, King Louis XIV — famously known as The Sun King, and the scandal-filled period drama centered around him unfolds at his royal court circa the 1650s.

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References

Herek, G. M. (2010). Sexual orientation differences as deficits: Science and stigma in the history of American psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(6), 693-699.

Herek, G.M. (2009). Sexual stigma and sexual prejudice in the United States: A conceptual framework. In D.A. Hope (Ed.), Contemporary perspectives on lesbian, gay and bisexual identities: The 54th Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp. 65–111). New York: Springer.

Pickren, W., Rutherford, A. (2010). A history of modern psychology in context. Wiley & Sons.

Positive psychology. (2020). Positive Psychology Center. https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu.

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Photo credits

Illustrations from “Scientific racism” via Wikipedia; background image design created by Mayra Ruiz-McPherson.

Hope this post helps open all of our eyes.

Mayra Ruiz-McPherson

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