Cover Story

In the view of Corann Okorodudu, EdD, the recent United Nations (UN) conference on racism could not have called attention to the issue at a more fitting time. America's war against terrorism--spurred by religious and cultural differences--has brought racism's destructive effects to the fore, she says.

In recent months, fear and mistrust of ethnic groups have escalated, and accordingly, so have hate crimes. "We're seeing a rise of racism," says Okorodudu. "We have had deaths already--people from the Asian continent being murdered. This isn't just affecting people who are Middle Eastern--it's affecting people who look Middle Eastern, including blacks. One of my sons is even thinking of shaving off his mustache."

Fighting such destructive consequences of racism is one of the reasons APA sent a delegation led by Okorodudu to the Durban, South Africa­based meeting, held Aug. 31 to Sept. 7, officially called the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. APA's delegates attended the meeting to raise awareness of what they see as psychology's critical role in combating racism. Their message: Before nations can effectively fight the problem with law, politics, money and other such measures, they first need to understand its psychological underpinnings and effects.

Indeed, past UN conferences have looked at the problem from legal, economic and sociological perspectives. This time APA sought to ensure that psychology added its perspective. "While such aspects as law and discrimination are certainly central parts of racism, we wanted to point out that there is also very much a psychological dimension," says Bertha Holliday, PhD, APA's director for ethnic minority affairs. "And if we don't address that dimension, we won't really solve the problem."

While the conference was embattled by politics--at the last minute, the United States pulled out due to debate over Palestinian concerns and reparations for slavery and colonialism--the well-publicized disruption did not interfere with APA's work. In fact, according to Holliday and Okorodudu, the delegation's efforts on behalf of psychology were largely successful.

APA was able to add language about the relationship of race to mental health in key conference documents--an important achievement, say those who represented APA, because nations that sign the documents are expected to comply with their recommendations. Representatives also succeeded in networking with international groups, raising their awareness of psychology's role in preventing and remedying racism and pushing for more racism-focused research and public education by professionals, including psychologists.

But psychology's work is far from over, says Okorodudu, who is also one of APA's official representatives to the UN. In fact, she says, it is really just beginning, and it will be challenging. "We need to work together and across disciplinary lines," she says, "on where to take our research, education and practice on racism and xenophobia."

Exposing racism's roots

Leading up to the UN meeting, APA's Council of Representatives authorized the preparation of APA's official conference documents, and delegates attended three preconferences, the first two in Geneva, Switzerland, and the third in Washington, D.C. Okorududu attended one of the first two meetings, while James Jackson, PhD, representative for APA's Committee on International Relations in Psychology, attended both of them and was joined by four other APA representatives at the third. At the meetings, the representatives distributed resolution and justification statements on psychology's role in overcoming racism.

For the main conference in Durban, APA crafted a declaration on racism, which its delegation of six psychologists and a psychology student circulated to non-governmental (NGO) and government officials. Among the declaration's main points: Racism serves to rationalize one group's psychological, social and material domination over others; racist behaviors are learned; and racism is systemic and cross-generational.

APA delegates emphasized those points at NGO caucuses addressing the effects of race in such areas as health, education, poverty and criminal and environmental justice. For example, delegate Anderson J. Franklin, PhD, president of APA's Div. 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues), explained the role of institutional racism in such practices as dumping toxic waste in minority communities.

Delegates also offered up mental health-related language, some of which appears in the final conference documents that are available on the Web, and they held a two-hour symposium on psychological aspects of racism. Finally, Jackson read--and entered into the official conference record--a three-minute paper based on APA's declaration.

Among the specific recommendations the paper offered to governments:

  • Acknowledge racist practices and urge major institutions to fight them.

  • Establish institutes on racial equity and mental health promotion.

  • Eliminate racist bias in research.

  • Reduce racism-related physical and mental health disparities.

  • Conduct more research on perpetrators.

"To fully understand the various 'isms' of the world--racism, sexism and related atrocities--it is important to learn about the experiences of the perpetrators as well as the victims," says William Parham, PhD, conference representative for APA's Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs.

Socializing people for tolerance and peace

Besides entering the three-minute paper into the official conference record, the delegation also won mention of psychology and mental health in several areas of the conference's final "Program of Action." For example, the document urges nations to:

  • Collect statistical data on race that takes into account "economic and social indicators, including...mental and physical health care" to help close social and economic gaps.

  • Bolster measures "to fulfill the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health" by working to eliminate racism-induced health disparities.

More generally, other sections of the document call on nations to:

  • Promote fair treatment and respect for migrants, refugees and indigenous peoples.

  • Increase tolerance and diversity.

  • Stop trafficking of women and children.

  • End racial profiling and discrimination on the part of law enforcement and government officials.

  • Fight xenophobia, gender and racial discrimination and other forms of intolerance.

Psychologists can contribute to these initiatives by drawing on their knowledge of such areas as child and adolescent development, cognition and trauma recovery, says delegate Thema Bryant, PhD, also one of APA's representatives to the UN. For example, says Bryant, they can intervene with young women who are trafficked to Europe and made to become psychologically dependent on their abusers. They can also step up their efforts to do something else called for in the document: educating students and the general public "about the causes and consequences of racism."

"This really opens the door for psychologists to engage in lots of new types of activities that they're uniquely qualified for," says Holliday. "For example, in the educational curriculum, how do we socialize people for tolerance and cultures of peace? How can psychologists contribute to curricula for that?"

To build on the delegation's conference achievements, Holliday and other delegates challenge psychologists to work on new forms of racism education and research, both within APA divisions and with other health and mental health organizations nationally and across the globe. Indeed, says Bryant, the conference has set the foundation for a truly international psychology of racism.

"Our most far-reaching success," she says, "was getting psychology on the minds of people doing this anti-racism work around the world."

Further Reading

For more information on the official documents from the UN conference, go to the conference Web site at www.un.org/wcar or the NGO Forum Web site at www.racism.org.za/index.html. For more information on the official documents submitted by APA, go to the APA Oema Racism Declaration.