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Profiles in Black: Dr. Joseph L. White, The Godfather of Black Psychology (1932-2017)

Anita Debro

Christoph Niemann: Wannsee station

Christoph Niemann: Wannsee station


Dr.  Joseph L. White had a distinguished career in psychology that spanned five decades and earned him the moniker “Godfather of Black Psychology.”  A professor, mentor, writer and clinical psychologist, White was also a founding member of the Association of Black Psychologists.

White was born in Lincoln, Neb. in 1932 and grew up in Minneapolis. He headed west to attend college and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology from San Francisco State University. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from Michigan State University.

White was a practicing psychologist in southern California and served on the faculty of University of California -Irvine and California State University at Long Beach. Education reform was of great interest to White while at California State. He was instrumental in establishing the California Educational Opportunity Program that helped minority students prepare for college. White also helped create the first black studies program at San Francisco State University in 1968, the same year that he and a group of black psychologists formed the Association of Black Psychologists.

Two years later, White published an article in Ebony magazine titled “Toward a Black Psychology,” which called for the creation of black psychology as its own field.

“The biggest point I made was that we should develop a strength-based psychology instead of a deficit-based psychology,” White told the American Psychological Association in a 2016 interview. “Every now and then (black people would) appear in the literature and it would say things like, ‘Negroes have a low IQ and they can't do a complex task.’  And during both world wars, psychologists testified before Congress and said black youngsters couldn't fly airplanes.”

The article was instrumental in the development of black psychology and other cultural psychology fields.

White died of a heart attack in November 2017.