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Do Black Lives Matter to Community Psychology?

As an African American community psychologist, much of my research and interests revolve around social justice for African Americans.  I entered the field of community psychology because I believed that the values of field aligned with my own and the thought of entering a social justice oriented discipline appealed to me.  Much of my time in graduate school was been spent coping with the numerous instances of systemic injustices toward African Americans.  From Trayvon Martin to Mike Brown to Sandra Bland to Flint to Philando Castile, these occurrences left me feeling threatened and unsafe.  The Black Lives Matter Movement coalesced around these issues as an affirmation of Black lives in the face of oppression and systemic racism. Scholars from various fields have begun examining Black Lives Matter, yet there is little research in the field of psychology. Given community psychology’s focus on social justice, activism, and change, I thought we had a unique opportunity to contribute to the current societal discussion on systemic oppression. 

I repeatedly felt disheartened when many of the tragedies were left undiscussed. Discussions on listservs and position statements were initiated for several social issues, but little to none related to those that threaten Black lives. During the rare instance that Flint, MI came up during a conversation on the listserv, more time was spent discussing how support could be given to the whistleblower rather than to the people of Flint.  I felt disappointed given my own experiences as a child and the harm that can be inflicted by unclean drinking water, having lead in my blood and being put on medication at six years old.  Why did there seem to be silence on these topics?  This led me to wonder about the emerging discourse surrounding Black Lives Matter in community psychology literature, so I conducted a PSYCHInfo search. 

My initial PSYCHInfo search a few months back yielded only 12 results; the most recent (as of July 10, 2017) search yielded 24 results.  Only one result was from a community psychology-related journal (American Journal of Public Health).  After seeing this lack of conversation, my colleagues and I organized a roundtable at this past Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA, the community psychology division of APA) biennial.  In preparing for the roundtable, a broader question came up: do Black lives matter in community psychology?  Given the lack of discussion of the recent and public injustices inflicted upon African Americans, I began to have doubts.  These doubts are not new; I have experienced them periodically during my graduate studies and I still do.  These doubts led to another question: what does it mean to use theories and frameworks normed and created by White men to apply to marginalized communities?We thought about all of the scholars of color and theories that influence our work yet are never discussed within the broader field of community psychology, particularly those that predate and/or align with community psychology principles and values.  W.E.B. Du Bois was one of, if not the first, empirical social scientists.  In many ways, Du Bois could be considered the original community psychologist if you assess his work.  He conducted ethnographic research, integrating himself into the communities from which he gathered data.  He used his research to alleviate social problems that ailed the African American community.  Double consciousness is still a concept cited to this day as a framework for understanding the dual experience of African Americans.  Du Bois also exemplified what it meant to be a scholar-activist as one of the founding members of the NAACP.  Much of his work was as much social critique as pure research, echoing the words of Julian Rappaport (2005) when he discussed community psychology.  Scholars like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Kenneth and Mamie Clark have conducted research that has influenced social movements spanning over the last half century, yet their names are rarely if ever, mentioned in the field as influences or even adjacent to community psychology.  Frameworks such as critical race theory and intersectionality are aligned perfectly with the social criticism inherent within community psychology, yet these theories and the scholars who develop them are not included in the canon of community psychology. 

When we discussed this question at the roundtable, many nodded their heads in agreement that there was an issue to be fixed.  Others began to point out that similar issues had been brought up before with not much changing afterward.  Throughout the remainder of the conference, I heard similar sentiments from both junior and senior scholars of color, particularly African American scholars.  Multiple people shared their personal stories of invisibility and lack of support, both as scholars and as marginalized people.  Many felt that our issues were not exotic enough for SCRA to focus on given there is such a focus on international work over that of domestic racial issues.  More so this year than previous years, I felt a sense of anger from people, angry that SCRA was not vocal enough on the issues that matter to the work we do and the communities we represent.  It is disheartening to feel that your work and the issues affecting your community are not viewed as important by your broader field.  This broader field being community psychology, a field of scholars that “fight oppression, work to reduce social inequalities, and work with marginalized people toward their empowerment.”  There are some times when I question my place in the field and do not necessarily feel like a community psychologist.  A lot of these situations stem from my racial identity.  I feel out of place many times when I go to community psychology conferences and see how few African Americans are present.  I feel out of place when I read all the seminal articles in the field and most of them are authored by White men.  I feel out of place when there are serious issues in society that are related to African Americans and the field seems to be relatively silent on these issues.  I originally went into the conference asking questions related to the connections between Black Lives Matter and Community Psychology, but I left convinced that the more important question that needed to be tackled was “Do Black lives matter to community psychology?”