- Psychiatry and Racial Liberalism in Harlem, 1936–1968 by Dennis A. Doyle
In 1946, Richard Wright, author of Native Son, sought to draw attention to the lack of psychiatric services for African Americans in Harlem. This underserved population, Wright argued, had the same access to psychiatric aid that "the Negroes of Mississippi, in theory, have access to the vote!" Dennis A. Doyle's Psychiatry and Racial Liberalism in Harlem, 1936-1968, makes an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on the intersection of race and psychiatry by uncovering an essential part of the struggle to provide psychiatric services in Harlem, particularly for children. In this informative history, Doyle examines the efforts of a tight network of racial liberals to expand mental health services to African Americans living in central Harlem. The book brings to light the work of little-known social justice advocates such as Justine Wise Polier, the first woman to be appointed a judge in New York's Domestic Relations Court; psychiatrist Dr. Max Winsor, who led the effort to bring psychiatric services into Harlem's public schools; and Dr. Viola Bernard, who would become the first director of Columbia University's new Division of Community Psychiatry. All three believed that "the human psyche was an unraced space…neither racially inferior nor racially unique" and that "biological race did not clinically matter in psychiatric cases" (100).
Working within what Doyle terms "small but powerful pockets of the public sector," these racial liberals challenged psychiatric authorities who asserted black people were biologically inferior to whites, and as a result of these innate differences, psychologically inferior as well (7). These assumptions often served as a rationale for not providing mental health services to African Americans and also led to an over-diagnosis of severe conditions like psychosis that justified more punitive (and less therapeutic) approaches through confinement in correctional facilities like state reform schools, psychiatric wards, and prisons.
Doyle's history reveals how these well-connected civil servants increasingly sought alternative means of achieving their aim to provide much needed mental health services for African Americans, often by turning to wealthy philanthropists to help create experimental, and at times ad hoc, psychiatric treatment services "within New York's systems of juvenile justice and child welfare" (54). Polier and her associates worked on multiple fronts to address systemic racial inequalities in the juvenile court system, public education, the hospital system, [End Page 980] and even within the field of psychiatry itself, which offered few opportunities for African American students and health practitioners. Doyle persuasively argues that the establishment of the first publicly funded psychiatric ward in Harlem Hospital in 1962 was the result of their commitment in the preceding three decades to "the race-neutral brand of community psychiatry they had patiently nurtured within both academia and the voluntary sector" (135). Doyle provides a fascinating look at how racial liberals like Polier, Winsor, and Bernard joined forces with a new civil rights organization, the City-Wide Citizens' Committee for Harlem (CWCCH) established in 1941. Working together, they mobilized black leaders' and citizens' support for reducing gross disparities in mental health services by pursuing an agenda to enact anti-racist policies in the court and educational systems.
It is worth noting that this study tends toward a traditional, top-down history of key figures in the juvenile civil service sector (the courts, state reformatories like the Wiltwyck School for Boys, and Harlem public schools), and culminates with the establishment of Harlem Hospital's new psychiatric clinic. More attention could have been paid to the impact of these institutional organizations on the people they sought to help. African American students, parents, and clients become, by default, a silent presence in this history, possibly owing to the paucity of sources and documentation, as Doyle discusses briefly in chapter three. Doyle tends to take his subjects' own statements about their methods and intentions at face value. Psychiatric intervention and services for black Americans in Harlem are rarely considered in this history as a...