Member at-large: Task forces and diversity column

Why Ferguson should matter

More research is needed on the effects of oppression at both conscious and unconscious levels, the relationship to health and health disparities and the effect on psychological functioning.

By Anita Thomas, PhD

It was challenging for me to follow the media coverage of the shooting death of Michael Brown and the subsequent protest and unrest in Ferguson without viewing it from a psychologist's perspective, particularly a psychologist interested in the lives and mental health of African-American youth. I watched and followed discussions on several psychology and counseling Listserv discussions as people struggled to deal with their personal feelings and ways to advocate for youth, families and the community. And I was struck by how much Ferguson and other similar incidents really should matter to us as psychologists in terms of research, practice and policy for youth and families of color.

Oppression remains a prominent issue in our country, despite the progress that has been made since the Civil Rights Movement. In a national study, American youth and young adults identified issues with race in legal, economic and educational systems and noted racism as an interpersonal issue for their generation (Apollon, 2011). Research suggests racism can lead to negative consequences (Pieterse, Todd, Neville, & Carter, 2012). There is a relationship between experiences of oppression and physical and psychological health outcomes in adults (Cassidy, O'Connor, Howe, & Warden, 2004; Pieterse et al., 2012). African-American youth also report experiences with racism and discrimination, and racism in youth has been found to be related to a variety of youth outcomes, including math self-efficacy, math outcome expectations and math-based careers (Alliman-Brissett, & Turner, 2010); depressive symptoms, lower self-esteem and decreased life satisfaction (Seaton et al., 2008); anger and substance use (Gibbons, O'Hara, Stock, Gerrard, Weng, & Wills, 2012); and racial identity (Seaton, Yip, & Sellers, 2009).

In terms of practice, we must remember the significant effect that oppression can have on our clients; even vicarious experiences of oppression such as the Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown shootings can have an influence on mental health and psychological functioning. Research on stereotype threat, for example, suggests that cognitive processes engaged in the appraisal process of identifying stereotype threat, trying to avoid failure and suppress negative thoughts compromise working memory, impairing the ability to engage in complex cognitive activities (Schmader, 2010). Effects of oppression are cumulative and can complicate mental health concerns. Therapists have an obligation to explore oppression as a component of therapy. We need to be engaged in promoting diversity through prevention programs and training for schools, agencies, organizations, churches and civic groups. More research is needed on the effects of oppression at both conscious and unconscious levels, the relationship to health and health disparities and the effect on psychological functioning. And we need more research on evidence-based prevention and intervention practices. (See the APA Task Force Report on Reducing Discrimination.) Finally, this incident reminds us that we need to be involved in advocacy and policy for children and families of color. APA has cited articles and references regarding stop-and-frisk laws and police brutality. We need to think more broadly about policies to end discrimination, provide education on microaggressions and the influence of hidden biases.


Alliman-Brissett, A. E., & Turner, S. L. (2010). Racism, parent support, and math-based career interests, efficacy, and outcome expectations among African American adolescents. Journal of Black Psychology, 36 , 197–225. doi:10.1177/0095798409351830

American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity. (2012). Dual pathways to a better America: Preventing discrimination and promoting diversity. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from

Apollon, D. (2011). Don't call them“post-racial”: Millennials' attitudes on race, racism and key systems in our society. New York: Applied Research Center. Accessed April , 18 , 2012.

Cassidy, C., O'Connor, R. C., Howe, C., & Warden, D. (2004). Perceived discrimination and psychological distress: the role of personal and ethnic self-esteem. Journal of Counseling Psychology , 51 (3), 329.

Gibbons, F. X., O'Hara, R. E., Stock, M. L., Gerrard, M., Weng, C. Y., & Wills, T. A. (2012). The erosive effects of racism: reduced self-control mediates the relation between perceived racial discrimination and substance use in African American adolescents. Journal of personality and social psychology , 102 (5), 1089

Pieterse, A. L., Todd, N. R., Neville, H. A., & Carter, R. T. (2012). Perceived racism and mental health among Black American adults: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Counseling Psychology , 59 (1), 1.

Schmader, T. (2010). Stereotype threat deconstructed. Current Directions in Psychological Science , 19 (1), 14-18.

Seaton, E. K., Yip, T., & Sellers, R. M. (2009). A longitudinal examination of racial identity and racial discrimination among African American adolescents. Child Development , 80 (2), 406-417.