Handler on Doyle, 'Psychiatry and Racial Liberalism in Harlem, 1936-1968'

Dennis A. Doyle
Beth R. Handler

Dennis A. Doyle. Psychiatry and Racial Liberalism in Harlem, 1936-1968. Rochester Studies in Medical History Series. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2016. viii + 260 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-58046-492-5.

Reviewed by Beth R. Handler (Independent)
Published on H-Disability (March, 2018)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=49527

When I was asked to review Dennis A. Doyle’s book Psychiatry and Racial Liberalism in Harlem, 1936-1968, I was eager to see what Doyle offered to the literature of mental health history specific to this population and this particular period. In addition, always interested in the interpretation of motivations and political interests on de facto social program and services implementation, I approached the text with hopeful anticipation. In reading the work, I found a well-written, well-researched study of the activities and effects of several important advocates for change to the interpretation and responses to juvenile delinquency and mental health in the African American community residing in Harlem. Moreover, Doyle offers a comprehensive exposition of the role of these advocates for racial liberalism in “dislodging racialism and institutional racism from institutions seeking to help citizens exercise self-control” (p. 7).

Biographical characterization and narrative is a distinct strength in this work. In his efforts to make known the key players and their work to the reader, Doyle offers comprehensive, scholarly, and humanizing descriptions of background, motives, and continuous efforts to alter existing constructs and narratives that interpreted deviant or disruptive behavior, particularly within the juvenile population, through a racialist lens. Doyle includes a clear and accurate definition of “racialism” as “the premise that biological race determines an individual’s personal capabilities” (p. 4). He goes on to provide a brief, but clear, explanation of how racialism differs from racism and manifests across society. In addition, Doyle does a very good job throughout the book in explicating institutional racism and its expansive generational effects. Finally, through his articulation and celebration of the persistence of the efforts of many racial liberalists, Doyle makes clear that the efforts of a few dedicated, highly connected, and empowered people can significantly effect change in operational assumptions within social institutions and communities.

Although most of the biographical material and narrative serve meaningful functions that further the reader’s understanding of the roles and relationships of the key players, there are sections in which Doyle lists names without providing detailed accompanying narrative. These sections are difficult to wade through and require the reader to remember names and associations that are not substantive to understanding the greater historiography of the relationship of racial liberalism on psychiatry in the period explored. As I was reading, I found myself periodically feeling like I was reading a biography of Judge Justine W. Polier, Max Winsor, and Viola Bernard, or the history of the Wiltwyck School, as these stories were given more detail and attention than the greater topic of the work.

Doyle offers excellent scholarship on an important and contemporarily relevant topic. I would venture that it is impossible to read this text without continually noting how the constructs that were operating in the decades covered reflect so many assumptions still operating within American society today. Institutional racism and its deleterious effects on blacks as individuals, particularly as it manifests in behaviors that are interpreted as psychosis or social deviancy resulting in institutionalization, continue to plague too large a portion of our community. Doyle does an excellent job in articulating how change in approach and increased resource allocation during the period considered within the book shifts with economic and political conditions. While reading, I could not help but nod in agreement as I thought about how those patterns have continued since 1968 and are so apparent in our current society. The discussion of the uprising of 1964 in response to the fatal shooting of fifteen-year-old James Powell by an off-duty police officer raises comparisons and parallels to events across America over the past few years that cannot be missed.

Throughout the book Doyle focuses on the topic of color-blind psychiatry. He spends significant time discussing the ideas of Polier and others that psychiatry needed to take a color-blind approach to interpretation of the behaviors of African Americans. The operational paradigm needed to abandon assumptions that blacks were by nature psychologically different from their white counterparts and incapable of controlling aggressive or sexual behaviors. The concept of color-blind psychiatry focused on seeing human nature as being the same regardless of race. On at least one occasion, he switches the term to “race-blind.” Within the context of the book, the two terms are almost synonymous, but in a broader context I believe the two terms have nuanced difference. Doyle uses the term “race-blind” until page 116 when he refers to clinicians who viewed African Americans to be “fundamentally human” whereas up until that point uses the term “color-blind” to refer to the practice of ignoring skin color by psychiatrists in their work with African Americans. After chapter 5, Doyle returns to a general use of the term “color-blind,” leaving me wondering if this alteration was intentional or not.

As indicated in the title, this book covers a thirty-year period. Doyle makes clear that he selected this time frame because the activities associated with “combating institutional racism in New York’s mental health care system” began in the 1930s (p. 4). He offers a very well-written discussion of racial liberalism in the long civil-rights era, defined as 1936-68, that justifies the selection of the period for his study. In using the concept of the “long civil-rights era,” Doyle correctly emphasizes that the battle for civil rights for blacks in America began with the fight against Jim Crow and continued through systematic discrimination and disenfranchisement into the 1980s and beyond.

Doyle’s narrative continually reveals the persistence and continued relevance of W. E. B. du Bois’s “veil” construct. In The Souls of Black Folks (1903), du Bois (1868-1963) proposed that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”[1] Moreover, du Bois offered us the construct of “the veil” as both a literal and metaphoric interpretive frame through which race and African American life may be viewed and, perhaps more important, experienced. In his significant work, du Bois articulated that all black folk live within and under the shadow of the veil, which, in turn, governs all that they do, say, or experience. The veil is a construction derived from and representative of the power structures and power-holders, but the effects of the veil on the perceptions and interpretation of blacks extend into the non-black community as a whole. Du Bois further articulated the generational effect of the veil on the black community as a mechanism from which systemic suspicion, stress, and anxiety have been created.

Echoes of du Bois’s “veil” construct appear throughout Doyle’s text but particularly in the second half of the work in which he discusses the role of sustained systemic racism on the emotional development of African Americans. In chapter 7, Doyle discusses the 1968 work by William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage, in which they suggest that “black culture had produced a healthy black psychological type” and characterized “the black community” as being “a strong, resilient force steeling individuals against racism” (p. 140). Doyle goes on to discuss the varying positions relative to poverty on emotional development within the African American community. In the second half of the book, he offers more discussion and narrative framed in historical context and support than is found in the first half, which is more heavily laden with names, timelines, relationships, and brief descriptions of ideological and practical changes related to psychiatry and the handling of black youth in the juvenile justice system.

All and all, Psychiatry and Racial Liberalism in Harlem is an informative study of the evolution of psychiatry as it relates to the African American community within Harlem in the mid-twentieth century. Structurally, the book has seven designated chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. Given the quality and importance of the material in both the introduction and conclusion, both might be better thought of as additional chapters. Each chapter is framed around a general time span, but as with all social histories, the years indicated are overlapping. The first four chapters offer a clear progression of concepts through the period 1936 to 1945. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 are less specific in their temporal clarity. Beginning with chapter 5, Doyle broadens his focus beyond that of psychiatry and racial liberalism per se by bringing in a discussion of “racial representations in popular media and psychiatric literature,” which, while still associated with the activities, people, and constructs offered in the earlier chapters, creates a deviation from the original topic (p. 96). In many ways, the book would have been more effective had Doyle shortened his period to 1936 to 1945 and included only his introduction, chapters 1 through 4, and his conclusion, leaving out the remaining chapters and perhaps featuring them as a second work.

Psychiatry and Racial Liberalism in Harlem is a very good read and an excellent piece of scholarship. It contributes important ideas and scholarship to the literature on mental health history and psychiatry. Doyle offers much more than a historiography of racial liberalism during the long civil-rights era. He provides a thoughtful exposition on social constructions of psyche, what it means to be human, and the processes of human emotional development that has value to our contemporary society.


[1]. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903), vii.

Citation: Beth R. Handler. Review of Doyle, Dennis A., Psychiatry and Racial Liberalism in Harlem, 1936-1968. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. March, 2018.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49527

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.