Dr. William Pierce, psychologist, as depicted on the Inspiration mural. Image courtesy of Josef Norris.

Dr. William Pierce, a psychologist and researcher associated with the Westside Community Mental Health Center, was one of the first researchers to attempt to dispel the racist notion of inherent white superiority in relation to intelligence. In addition to his work at the West Side Community Mental Health Center, Pierce has used his professional standing to advocate for the fair treatment of African Americans.

Born in 1940 in Youngstown, Ohio, Pierce enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh in 1962. Pierce joined the Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American Greek-lettered fraternity during his collegiate career. He became a clinical psychologist in 1967. In 1968 Pierce accepted an internship at Napa State Hospital and he moved to California. After the completion of his internship, he took up directorship of the West Side Community Mental Health Center. It was here where Pierce’s career genuinely took off, finding great success in a leadership role.

In the 1970s a conference of nearly 10,000 psychologists held by the National Association of Black Psychologists created a study model that involved “switching from traditional psychology to one that deals with the ‘oppressive, victimizing’ American environment” (Melnick). Among these psychologists was Dr. Pierce, whose research and advocacy were focused on suspending the administration of biased IQ tests that were created in favor of failing black students and forcing them into special needs classes. An NAACP study found “that although black children constitute 25 percent of the general school population, they make up 53 percent of the mentally handicapped classes” (Wood “Blacks Tell S.F Schools: ‘Stop Biased I.Q Tests’”).

Pierce achieved a victory when Martin Dean, then Assistant Superintendent of Schools, admitted that the “present tests were unsatisfactory” and proclaimed “all children in special education classes currently are being retested” (Wood “Stop Biased I.Q. Tests”). Eventually, thanks to Pierce’s efforts the school district took steps to suspend IQ testing until it could assemble “a committee including black psychologists to study the moratorium on testing” (Wood “Tests to End”).

Psychologist Dr. William Pierce used his expertise to challenge the racially biased IQ testing methods that were administered in San Francisco schools. His suggested reforms changed the way IQ testing is now conducted throughout the nation.

Pierce continued to make the case at the 1974 conference that the National Association of Black Psychologists called for in San Francisco. He pointed out that the tests were meant to be administered to middle-class white children instead of lower-class black children, resulting in a test that would not “reflect the differing value systems of whites and blacks” (Wood “The IQ Bias Battle”). The results of the conference and the study eventually led to a reform of IQ tests that would more accurately serve black students.

Pierce would go on to lead protests against the San Francisco Police Department’s actions during the 1974 Zebra murders. As a string of racially motivated murders against whites gripped the community, Pierce protested “the issuing of identification cards” (Wood “Zebra Hunt Protests”), calling them insensitive and complaining alongside his colleagues, Dr. Aubrey Dent that the SFPD “seems to be acting out of frustration and a sense of helplessness” (Wood “Zebra Hunt Protests”).

Dr. Pierce’s “interest in the community was consistent with the tenor of the time” (Dent), and he spent his life and career ensuring that black residents of San Francisco would receive fair treatment from officials of their home city until his passing in 2015. Though racism has woven its way into society via educational limitations directed toward black students, it is only through proactive and conscientious behavior exhibited by changemakers such as Dr. William Pierce that will help create a just and equal social climate.

Alvin Tran, Loven Florencio, and Sage Stefanick

Works Cited

Dent, Harold. “A Tribute to Bill Pierce.” Psych Discourse. 15 Oct 2015.

Wood, Jim. “The IQ Bias Battle.” California Living Magazine. 24 Sep 1972: 15-17.

“Doctors Oppose It—More Zebra Hunt Protests.” SF Chronicle. 25 Apr 1974.

“Dr William Dallas Pierce.” Obituary Service Information. 2015.

Melnick, Norman. “White Methodology Decried.” SF Examiner. 31 Aug 1972.

Wood, Jim. “Black Pupil I.Q Tests to End.” SF Examiner. 6 May 1970.

Wood, Jim. “Blacks Tell S.F Schools: ‘Stop Biased I.Q Tests.’” SF Examiner. 5 Mar 1970.

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