Psychology has rarely examined the issue of racism using a psychoanalytic angle in an academic setting, but that is exactly what New York University (NYU) set out to do through a collaboration that began in fall of 2002 and will run through this spring.

The university's postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis teamed up with the school's Institute of African-American Affairs to design and host a series of meetings on race. The year-and-a-half-long collaboration culminates in six workshops this semester and was made possible by $140,000 in grants--$117,000 from the Ford Foundation and the rest from the Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation, the Yip Harburg Foundation, the Eugene Garfield Foundation and the NYU Humanities Council.

Spearheading the collaboration are Neil Altman, PhD, an associate clinical professor in NYU's postdoctoral psychotherapy and psychoanalysis program, and Adelbert Jenkins, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and affiliate faculty member of the Africana studies program. Through the partnership, Altman and Jenkins seek to connect psychotherapy and psychoanalysis more closely with the cultural mainstream.

"Psychoanalysis has been considered, especially in the United States, as unconcerned with social problems," Altman explains.

Meanwhile, psychology can benefit African-American studies by providing a personal perspective, says Manthia Diawara, PhD, a filmmaker and director of NYU's Institute of African-American Affairs.

"Psychologists look at the health of a community in the first place," he says. "They listen to individuals. They look at the individual experience. They try to, in some ways, challenge the general notion of race by paying attention to both the outside effects and inside effects."

The two disciplines complement one another, Diawara adds. Psychotherapy can offer psychological insight to a subject typically discussed in terms of economics and politics, he explains, while black studies can bring new cultural perspectives to a historically Caucasian line of work.

Agreeing on the mutual benefits, Jenkins notes, "The country is becoming more multicultural, and psychoanalysts must open up their outlooks where their practice is culturally bound and culturally constricted in racial perspectives."

Examining unconscious racism

The NYU team effort launched with a conference on psychoanalysis, social policy and the sociocultural meaning of race, held Nov. 1-2, 2002. About 150 faculty members and students from a range of disciplines gathered to discuss what Altman calls "unconscious racism," which is defined as less overt, more subtle forms of racial discrimination. Given that unconscious racism is particularly ignored during times of international crisis and domestic turbulence, like the current U.S. war on terrorism, psychology can help put it back on the national radar, says Altman, through conferences such as NYU's.

In another attempt at consciousness-raising, Altman and Jenkins provided a weeklong seminar on psychoanalysis and race for faculty from around the country through NYU's Faculty Resource Network in June 2003. In addition, the two departments will put on a humanities colloquium for NYU graduate students and faculty this spring. This final partnership installment will feature six workshops held twice monthly and focusing on:

  • Unconscious racism.

  • Racial bias in everyday interpersonal relations.

  • Discrimination in the law.

  • Public policies and their impact on black women in New York City.

  • The murder of James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas, in 1998.

  • Historical and contemporary notions of racial difference in the United States.

Warren Spielberg, PhD, an NYU postdoc in psychotherapy, says he plans to attend all six workshops and notes that the collaboration has already bolstered his research on the psychological well-being of African-American boys.

Psychoanalysis, explains Spielberg, also a psychology instructor at the New School University, "puts the discussion of race and conflict in a different light. It makes the discussion more personal, much richer. What's left out of most political debates [with regard to race] is how the participants feel. It's another tool by which to arrive at the truth of political and social processes that are not addressed by policy-makers."

Further collaboration

Even as the program funding runs out, Altman and Jenkins seek to continue the partnership.

"The next step is take all those people who showed interest in this one way or another and to have a meeting on where we go from here and how do we build on this bridge we established," Altman says.

Some have already taken the initiative. Diawara says this fall he plans to teach a course with Jenkins. The course, "African-American Autobiography," will feature literary elements taught by Diawara and psychological aspects taught by Jenkins.

In addition, the postdoctoral program has been developing interdisciplinary alliances with the English department to explore narrative and trauma, the Judaic studies department to focus on the Holocaust, and the cinema studies program. Meanwhile, program director Lewis Aron, PhD, anticipates continuing collaboration with various departments at NYU, including the Institute of African-American Affairs, and hopes to garner additional funding to carry on the work that's started.

Often, says Aron, "People of color look at psychoanalysis and don't see themselves represented, and they think, 'Well, it's not going to be relevant to me, and it's not going to be relevant to my community.'" But, in fact, he says, "Psychoanalysis has a great deal to offer the study of race and racism and prejudice."

Katrina Woznicki is a writer in Edgewater, N.J.