Social Justice and Ethics: Dilemmas and Opportunities for Psychologists

Before we decided to send this topic for consideration for the MPA 81st Annual Convention we had conversations about the events that were happening around the country related to police brutality and killings of unarmed African Americans, the riots, and the protests. We wondered why voices of psychologists were missing from the commentaries in the media; both on local and national TV, and in print media. We wondered about the psychological impact of the traumatic events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Minneapolis and others to the communities and the country as a whole. We wondered how traumatizing it was for young children and adults to see the body of Michael Brown lying on their streets for hours. We wondered how it was possible for all, except psychologists to frequent newsrooms to comment, analyze, and condemn these acts. We wondered what was stopping psychologists from having a strong presence on the microphones to explain, teach, or even warn about long-term effects of trauma that were unfolding before our eyes. Then we decided to delve into psychology literature on Ethics and Social Justice, and the APA Ethical Guidelines. To say the least, there is ample work that has been done on this topic.  We looked at the history of psychology and social injustice, social justice, and through discussions explored ideas on the role of the psychologist and dilemmas on ethics and legal issues in media presence.

APA’s Multicultural Guidelines (2010)
“Psychologists are in a position to provide leadership as agents of prosocial change, advocacy, and social justice, thereby promoting societal understanding, affirmation, and appreciation of multiculturalism against the damaging effects of individual, institutional, and societal racism, prejudice, and all forms of oppression based on stereotyping and discrimination” (p. 382).

Ethical issues present dilemmas and opportunities for debate when working with marginalized populations. Social justice demands that we constantly question what is ethical, what is culturally informed, and what is legal. What about those things which are legal or cultural but do not conform to our professional ethics? This discussion will be laid out on a backdrop of APA’s Multicultural Guidelines and the APA Public Interest Directorate mission which calls for us to: “Apply psychology to the fundamental problems of human welfare and social justice; promote equitable and just treatment of all segments of society through education, training and public policy.”

Advancing the social justice agenda by psychologists necessitates reflection on how the colonial roots within our societies and in psychology may be enacted in the work we do as mental health professional, researchers, and educators. We need to adopt a decolonizing perspective that contextualizes the lived experiences of racism and privilege. We can unmask subtle forms of domination that still exist in our academic practices-from admissions to professional practice (Tindi, Consuelo, Renninger, & Fehn-Birkeland, NMCS, 2015). It is imperative to continuously remind ourselves of the historical contexts of social ills/injustices perpetrated on society through psychology. As psychologists we can do justice to the society by making deliberate efforts to undo what we created. We can talk about colonization and European imperialism that was ushered in in Africa by psychology of religion; “Do not worry about the worldly wealth for your wealth is stored in heaven where moth can never attack them,” this while taking African lands and reducing them to squatters in their own land. We can begin to own how we introduced separation of human beings through psychological tests. Remember what Hitler used as a basis for his atrocities?  Psychology “Science” justifying lower intelligence, “less civilized” based on standardized testing​.

The context of most of the current events: police brutality, the re-traumatization, and criminalization of African Americans, media sensation, demonstrations, racial tensions, and hate crimes have their roots in the history of psychology and social injustice. Other than a call to have open and respectful conversation about these issues, the question is what else can psychologists do? The forums where we find an APA statement on the current upheavals such as on the APA website, mostly target professionals. Therefore, one may assume that not much is being done by psychologists to fulfill their role in the social justice agenda. Not true. APA has been working tirelessly on this issue; but not in the public eye. Do we need grassroots activism? Community education? What else?

Are these statements in APA Ethical Guidelines stifling voices of psychologists, and rather than empowering creating a dilemma in political engagement to address social justice?

5.04 Media Presentations :
“When psychologists provide public advice or comment via print, Internet or other electronic transmission, they take precautions to ensure that statements (1) are based on their professional knowledge, training or experience in accord with appropriate psychological literature and practice; (2) are otherwise consistent with this Ethics Code; and (3) do not indicate that a professional relationship has been established with the recipient (see also Standard 2.04, Bases for Scientific and Professional Judgments).”

Racism, and social exclusion are psychological, a social justice issue, and they are political too. Crethar and Ratts (2008) argue that inaction in the face of social injustice, or claiming neutrality in the face of race relation issues is political; and that claiming neutrality in and of itself is support for the status quo. Crethar and Ratts (2008) further posit that there is a relationship between social injustice and the mental health of people we serve. How then can psychologists and other mental health professionals address issues of racism, oppression, and discrimination? How can psychologists assess for oppressive acts, and teach coping strategies to individuals affected by racism? The reason for raising this question is that if coping with racism is an intervention, then probably it should become a psychotherapy issue when working with those experiencing racism and other forms of discrimination. Psychologists can no longer leave the work of community organizing and mobilizing to social workers. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand like ostriches: Counseling is political. Therapy is political. Teaching is political. Writing is political. Research is political.

Reflection: Crethar and Ratts (2008), “We engage in the work we do so that we might better meet the needs of our clients, and create a healthier society (pg. 1).”

Question? How can psychologists have a presence in the media?

Alice Tindi, MSW, LICSW, is Psy.D. candidate at the University of St. Thomas School of Professional Psychology, and APA Minority Fellow. Ms. Tindi has over 10 years of clinical social work experience serving diverse populations in community, residential, clinic and hospital settings. Ms. Tindi is a trainer/presenter/speaker both locally and nationally on provision of culturally relevant mental health services to African refugees and immigrants. Ms Tindi is an ardent advocate for social justice and decolonizing psychology for global outreach. Ms. Tindi served as a student representative, APA Division 17: as a Board Member-At-Large, National Association of Social Workers (NASW) MN Chapter; Committee member NASW National Committee on Leadership Identification (NCNLI) and Board member, Hennepin County Adult Mental Health Advisory Board to the Commissioners. Ms. Tindi earned her Masters in Social Work degree from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a Bachelors degree in Education (Arts) at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. Ms. Tindi was Head of the Department of Languages and served as a teacher for 10 years before migrating to the U.S.

Joy Sales received her M.A. in counseling psychology from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently pursuing her Psy.D. She is a pre-doc intern at Park Avenue Center.


Crethar, H.C., & Ratts, M. J. (2008). Why social justice is a counseling concern. Counseling today,

APA (2003). Guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice, and organizational change for psychologists. American Psychologist, 58(5) 377-402

Forsyth, S. L. (2015). Grassroots…What’s the big deal? Accessed from

Vasquez, M. J. T. (2012). Psychology and social justice: Why we do what we do. American Psychologist, 67(5), 337-346.

Jenkins, Y. M. (2004). From tragedy to triumph: The Tulsa race riot. In J. L. Chin (Ed.) The psychology of prejudice and discrimination: Racism in America, Vol. 1. Race and ethnicity in psychology (pp. 21-36). CT: Prager Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.

Share this post:

Comments on "Social Justice and Ethics: Dilemmas and Opportunities for Psychologists"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment