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Vigilance in the Face of Institutional Racism

Published on 24 March 2017

Dennis Doyle, Ph.D., assistant professor of history, marked the culmination of six years of research, writing and editing with his latest publication, “Psychiatry and Racial Liberalism in Harlem, 1936-1968,” published by the University of Rochester Press. His latest publication dives deep into the history of the individuals who worked to make psychiatry more available to Harlem’s black community in the early civil rights movement.

As part of the Black History Month programming, Doyle gave a book talk to a packed classroom. His enthusiasm and natural talent for storytelling captivated his audience, as he told the story of how silenced voices came together to create a wall of sound and spark long-awaited change.

The 1934 election of Fiorello Henry La Guardia to mayor of New York City brought hope and opportunity for Harlem’s black community. La Guardia would put into motion the black community’s access to psychiatric care with the appointment of Justine Wise Polier as the first female judge in the United States. Building on La Guardia’s anti-racism platform, Polier surrounded herself with like-minded staff and allies to support her liberal brand of justice and programs.

Polier would go on to establish the first psychiatric treatment clinic for the children’s court, or Domestic Relations Court, which she insisted to be interracial. She also established a psychiatric mobile unit in Harlem junior high schools, and helped found the Wiltwyck School for Boys, an interracial school for delinquent boys in the Catskill Mountains, with the idea that relocating boys to a healthier environment would encourage a healthier mental space.

These victories of anti-racism would not be sustained, however, once La Guardia left office in 1945. Without political backing, Polier’s programs would be compromised, and she once again found herself inundated in institutional racism. There would be a slow resurgence of anti-racist thought in the late 1950s, eventually leading to Harlem Hospital establishing a psychiatric unit in 1962.

Doyle spoke beyond the contents of his book to inspire compassion and vigilance in the face of institutional racism. He took guidance from author Samuel R. Delany, as he spoke about how racism, sexism and classism reassert themselves as soon as vigilance is allowed to relax. Bringing his research to the present, he encouraged those gathered to build coalitions of like-minded people to implement change. Doyle closed with words of optimism and action.

“At the end of the day, one of the things Black History Month is to trying to do is create a world we want to live in, not the world as it is,” Doyle said. “That means having conversations that might be difficult, but that will bring a more cohesive culture and a culture that includes everyone.”

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