- What's Wrong with the Poor? Psychiatry, Race, and the War on Poverty by Mical Raz, and: Under the Strain of Color: Harlem's Lafargue Clinic and the Promise of an Antiracist Psychiatry by Gabriel N. Mendes
psychology, psychiatry, social activism, twentieth century America, race
In the concluding chapter of What's Wrong with the Poor?, Mical Raz poses a question that is at the core of both books under review: "How can mental health [End Page 508] professionals help the poor without pathologizing them?" (174). Raz and Gabriel N. Mendes, in Under the Strain of Color: Harlem's Lafargue Clinic and the Promise of an Antiracist Psychiatry, concur that the answer is for professionals to consider the effects of structural inequality on the health of low-income Americans, something most mid-twentieth-century psychologists and psychiatrists failed to do, especially with regard to African Americans. The consequence of this omission was the scientific perpetuation, often inadvertent, of negative cultural stereotypes. Both authors address the role of mental health experts in shaping public policy in twentieth-century America, particularly white attitudes towards urban riots and school desegregation, but their approaches and conclusions differ.
Raz takes a broad institutional view of prominent clinical researchers employed by prestigious universities and government agencies who portrayed African American families as "culturally deprived." She argues that many social scientists recklessly applied the results of laboratory tests conducted on African Americans living in cities, ignoring the fact that such gross analogies had little material basis. Mendes employs a more focused approach on one institution, the Lafargue Clinic of Harlem, and the individuals behind its creation, especially Dr. Frederic Wertham. Wertham's status outside of a university or federal agency, Mendes argues, led him to create an anti-racist, social psychiatry that offered affordable psychotherapy to African Americans, respectfully helping them find pragmatic solutions to problems caused or compounded by racism.
Raz opens with a discussion of infamous experiments conducted in the 1950s by psychologist Donald O. Hebb at McGill University, in which adult human volunteers were deprived of sensory stimulation for prolonged periods to see whether the resultant disorientation would render them more pliable to brainwashing. These experiments garnered extensive press coverage and attracted grant money, encouraging psychologists in tangentially related fields to re-conceptualize their work and mimic the language of sensory deprivation. As Hebb's research was adapted to other fields, researchers began to apply his findings to less controlled environments. For example, Raz shows that child psychologists studying attachment theory began to define mothering as a form of stimulation, and the absence of a mother as a form of deprivation. Raz writes that the conflation of maternal and sensory deprivation "gained particular significance in the debate over child day care throughout the 1960s" (20). Day care for middle-income white mothers was deemed unhealthy because it deprived children of essential maternal attention. Day care for low-income, black mothers, however, was conceived of as a positive intervention because white psychologists assumed that African American mothers did not or could not provide adequate sensory stimulation. In both cases, Raz observes, "the focus was on what children lacked rather than on their strengths, capabilities, or singularities" (36).
The language of deprivation stigmatized black mothers, but ironically the political intentions of many child development researchers were to aid low-income families by providing them with compensatory educational programs. White researchers did not believe that black mothers were biologically deficient, but rather, they argued that [End Page 509] parenting skills were adversely affected by the "culture of poverty." This concept was first articulated in 1959 by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who studied marginalized families in Mexico and concluded that the experience of poverty generated destructive behaviors and values, which kept the poor passive and defeated. Lewis suggested that his observations were universal...