In this issue

Presidential column

The Div. 1 president discusses 2016 APA Convention programming, the consequences of racism and climate change.

By Nancy Baker, PhD

In the spring, the thoughts of APA division presidents turn to convention. I hope to see many of you in Denver where our 2016 Program Chair Sherry Wang, PhD, has put together an exciting set of events for Div. 1. Our program will include inspiring addresses by two invited speakers, Janet Helms, PhD, and Michelle Fine, PhD. Helms will be discussing the intersection of racism and sexism as causes of the invisibility of black women and girls. Fine's address is descriptively titled “Baring Whiteness/Bearing Witness When #BlackLivesMatter: Reflections on a Critical Psychology in Grossly Unequal Times.” These talks are particularly important to me because I decided more than 50 years ago to study psychology believing that psychology could help address and eliminate the racism I saw enacted daily in my community. Although I think I was correct about the potential, psychology has not consistently lived up to that potential. Fine and Helms are shining examples of how psychology can make a difference.

The consequences of racism have been on my mind and in our faces this past year due in no small part to the focus created by the Black Lives Matter movement. While it is true that all lives matter, we have been encouraged to recognize just how consistently this society has treated black lives as if they matter less ever since the category of race was created some 400 years ago to justify that unequal treatment. News stories have repeatedly called our attention to the higher rates of governmental repression and the higher rates of governmental inattention experienced by blacks in this country. We see the repression reflected in everything from the greater likelihood of being stopped for traffic infractions to a higher likelihood of being shot. I am certainly not the only person to wonder skeptically if authorities would have patiently waited 41 days for the surrender of black or Muslim activists engaging in the armed occupation of a federal facility. But, we see the difference, or can see it if we pay attention, in the routinely different responses of law enforcement to “odd” behavior or irritation from black individuals compared to white individuals. We see the government's inattention to the lives of non-whites reflected in the higher rates of toxic environmental exposures for communities of black and brown residents, fewer resources for schools in those areas and slower action when lives are directly endangered, as they are by the water problems in Flint, Mich.

For me it has been a revelation to follow the systemic consequences of the inequity in such things as traffic citations. When the cost of a traffic ticket can easily be a significant portion of a person's weekly income, differential levels of traffic stops are not trivial issues. Although Ferguson is only one example of a nationwide problem, the results for poor blacks of higher rates of expensive tickets include higher rates of being unable to pay, followed by higher likelihood of bench warrants for failing to appear, followed by higher rates of incarceration with higher rates of being unable to pay bail, followed by higher rates of losing jobs due to being incarcerated, etc. Of course, it is equally important and quite discomforting to realize that what is an eye-opening revelation to me is more likely a validation of lived experience for my black colleagues and friends.

We also see both efforts to deprive black people of political power and the consequences of the resulting lack of democratic power. The first issue is brought to our attention by the legal challenges to new restrictions on voting rights enacted since 2013 when the Supreme Court nullified most of the protections in the Voting Rights Act. The real consequences of restrictions on democratic rights and power are evident in the Flint water crisis. The Center for Constitutional Rights notes that 51 percent of black citizens in Michigan, including the residents of Flint, live in communities run by unelected managers installed under bankruptcy legislation, whereas only two percent of white citizens are similarly disenfranchised. It is apparently easier to ignore the lives of those who cannot change the situation at the ballot box.

Given how important these issues are, it is exciting to me that our convention program includes some opportunities to focus on what psychology has to convey about racism. I hope you will join me in listening to what Helms and Fine have to say. Their talks also fit with the theme of my presidential address examining some of the roots of racism and sexism in psychology as a discipline and tracing the effect of those roots and the resistance to them in the branches of our current field.

Of course, we will also take some time at convention to celebrate the contributions of our 2016 award winners and hear addresses by the 2015 William James Award winner, Darcia Narvaez, PhD, and the 2015 Ernest Hilgard Award winner, Richard Lerner, PhD. Another important aspect of our convention time will be our time together both at the division business meeting and at our social hour. We really welcome and encourage all members to attend both of these events.

 This year we will be announcing our division awards at the business meeting and honoring the award winners at our division social hour. We will also be continuing the tradition we started last year of providing a free drink at the social hour to the first 71 (up one from last year since Div. 1 is now 71 years old) students and early career professionals who request one from our student and ECP chairs or at our division suite.

The Div. 1 program seems unlikely to directly address the other issue that has been on my mind — catastrophic climate change, often called by the benign-sounding name of “global warming.” However, that issue is related to one of the fundamental domains of our division, the domain of science. Science was the subject of my first presidential column. The notion of science — what it is and what it is not, and the nature of evidence, what constitutes good evidence and what constitutes “enough” evidence — have been on my mind a great deal.

These musings on what constitutes science and evidence were encouraged by cringe-worthy moments in discussions about evolution by some individuals running for our nation's highest office. There were reports in the news about presidential candidates being unwilling to endorse the reality of human evolution — preferring to assert that the “debate” over whether life on this planet slowly evolved over eons as established by the fossil record or that humans were placed here fully formed by the hand of the deity is between roughly equivalent competing theories. Of course, this should not come as a total surprise since we have schools and even accredited institutions of higher learning that teach “creation science” as a worthy alternative to “the theory of evolution.”

The question of what is evidence or what is enough evidence is particularly central to climate change issues. We continue to see the global average temperature increasing. The consequences of that increase include rising seas, dramatic instability in the weather and serious disruption in many natural climate-related phenomena. There is overwhelming consensus among natural scientists that human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuel, is a major factor in climate change. Yet, the political will to address the role of human activity in rising temperatures is undermined by the existence of a few scientists who argue that there is not enough evidence, or that it is not good evidence, or that the evidence is being interpreted in a biased way.

In thinking about these two serious concerns, it is less clear what psychology's role can be in addressing climate change — we are not, after all, generally climate scientists, botanists or biologists. However, we are members of a discipline committed to critical thinking, the application of systematic evidence collection and a willingness to make decisions based on evidence rather than a priori allegiance to a set of beliefs. Perhaps if we consciously work to increase the interest and ability of our students, neighbors and friends to apply those tools to the issues and questions of our day, we can make a difference. Let me know what you think when I see you in Denver.

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Member comment on the presidential column published in fall 2015 newsletter

I am pleased to see your important statement, Nancy, about the importance of cultural context in looking at psychological studies of behavior. It is distressing to me to see how many studies are published without detailed information about the nature of the sample used. As editor of the journal Sex Roles , I always required such information, and many found this an odd request. I also asked that as studies are reviewed, the nature of the samples be identified. I hope more journal editors will start doing this. — Irene Benson Frieze, PhD