In the Public Interest

On Aug. 28, APA CEO Norman B. Anderson and I were among the APA staff who joined thousands of others on the Washington Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, also known as the March for Jobs and Freedom. As someone who grew up in the segregated South during the civil rights movement, I found it a particularly powerful experience. The event speakers highlighted the progress made over the last 50 years and the battles that remain. 

The 1963 march offered a cogent narrative on the harmful effects of economic and civil inequality. While we have seen some progress toward civil and social justice, unemployment remains a persistent and critical issue. As a number of speakers noted, unemployment is worse today at 8.1 percent than in 1963 at 5.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Joblessness among African-Americans has consistently been twice the rate among whites for the past six decades, according to the Pew Research Center.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew how critical this issue was. In 1968, in the months just before his death, King was organizing the Poor People's Campaign to seek economic and human rights for the country's poor — poor black, Hispanic, Native and white Americans. 

I attended that march as an observer and felt more strongly than ever that I would use psychology to help change society. Bayard Rustin, in his preamble to the 1963 March on Washington, said that the end of legal segregation would not be sufficient for achieving integration. Integration in education, housing, public accommodations and transportation would be of limited extent and duration so long as fundamental economic inequality persisted.

Although signs no longer declare "whites only" or "Negros need not apply," discrimination in hiring and other areas still exists. A number of studies have shown that African-American job seekers have a harder time finding jobs than whites, and much of this difference can be explained by discrimination. For example, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan found that job applicants with black-sounding names received 50 percent fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names (American Economic Review, 2004).

Despite these and similar studies, unemployed people are often blamed for their status. Discrimination, stereotyping and bias generate exclusion and marginalization for certain groups and wrap a blanket of inclusion, security and opportunity around others, according to the report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Reducing and Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity. The country likes to believe "If you work hard, you can make it," but this deeply held cultural belief does not take into account substantial evidence that many other factors — including discrimination, where you live and concentrated poverty — have a powerful impact on whether one has a job, the type of job it is, and whether there are opportunities for promotion and advancement.

Psychologists have an important role to play in addressing economic inequity. The APA task force report documented ways to decrease discrimination and to increase diversity. The report noted that despite the importance of economic inequality, social class, poverty, classism and privilege — and their centrality to any discussion of discrimination and inclusion — U.S. psychology has marginalized these issues.

We need to increase psychologists' involvement in these critical areas by establishing best practices to use psychological research effectively to help change attitudes, behavior and policy. As we look at the next 50 years, psychology must continue to contribute to the country's understanding of the high cost of discrimination and racial/ethnic, socioeconomic and other inequities.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1934, "No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order."