A pioneer in the field of black psychology and an influential figure to countless students at UC Irvine, Joseph L. White was 84 and planning for the future.
The psychologist and retired professor, friends said, had books he wanted to write. He was thinking of compiling recordings of his past lectures. But on Nov. 21, while on a connecting flight to visit family in St. Louis for Thanksgiving, he died of a heart attack.
White’s career was a blend of activism and scholarship.
He fought to increase minority students’ access to higher education and helped create California’s Educational Opportunity Program, which has allowed more than 250,000 students to attend college, many as the first in their families to do so.
He also challenged the psychology establishment. In 1968, as part of a group of black psychologists, he confronted the American Psychological Assn. about its lack of racial diversity. At the time, White wrote, fewer than 1% of the association’s more than 10,000 members were black.
That same year, White helped found the Assn. of Black Psychologists.
White rose to prominence in 1970 with the publication of “Toward a Black Psychology,” in Ebony magazine. The article made him a “cultural icon,” said Thomas A. Parham, vice chancellor of student affairs at UCI and one of White’s former students.
In the article, White argued that psychology as developed by white psychologists had little applicability to black lives. White psychologists, he wrote, were prone to unfairly labeling African Americans as deviant or diseased. His writing is widely considered to have contributed to the creation of ethnic studies programs and what’s known as cross-cultural psychology.
In 1984, he published the book "The Psychology of Blacks.”
“He really challenged the notion and, dare I say, the arrogance of Eurocentric psychology, which assumed it was the norm and the standard against which every group should be measured,” Parham said.
White was celebrated as a captivating lecturer by his students at UCI, where he began teaching in 1969. He became director of the African American Studies program in 1991, and retired in 1994 as a professor of psychology and comparative culture. (The school’s African American Studies department now has 18 majors and a dozen minors, according to a university spokesman.)
“He was a master teacher," Parham said. “But one of the best things he did, and his enduring legacy, was the mentorship he provided to scores [of] students.”
White’s office was a haven for students, said Kenneth Bentley, a former Nestle vice president who took his psychology class as an undergraduate. The professor was a guide and confidant, famous for taking young people aside and diagramming each step of their future lives.
Even years after he graduated, “if I had any major decision I had to make in my life, I’d call Joe White,” Bentley said.
Without White, he added, college itself would have been out of reach for him and many of his family members.
“As I look at my family, 7 out of 8 kids went to college. And most went to school on the Educational Opportunity Program,” Bentley said. “Joe White, because he created that program, changed generations. He changed lives.”
Born in Lincoln, Neb., in 1932, White grew up in Minneapolis, where his mother moved after she and his father separated. At a young age, he worked as a waiter at the downtown Curtis Hotel.
He eventually moved west, working in the club car of a passenger train until he reached the Bay Area, where he enrolled at San Francisco State College in 1950. White earned his bachelor’s and master's degrees, served a term in the Army and then earned a doctorate at Michigan State.
In a 1994 interview with The Times, White said that in 1962, when he earned his PhD, he was one of only five African Americans in the nation with doctorates in clinical psychology. Yet, when he accepted a job at Cal State Long Beach, he struggled to find anyone who would rent him a home.
"Even though I spent almost 18 months in the South as a soldier, I didn't know how deep racism was in America till I got that PhD," White said. "I had been trained all my life to believe in the performance aspect. I thought if you had enough [academic] tickets, that was all you had to do.”
White taught at Cal State Long Beach from 1962 to 1968. He also served on the faculty of San Francisco State University before heading to Irvine.
His first marriage, to Myrtle E. White, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Lois White, and three daughters, Lori S. White, Lynn W. Kell and Lisa D. White.
His oldest daughter, Lori S. White, the vice chancellor for students at Washington University in St. Louis, described her father as the kind of person who “never lost track of anyone that he had ever met, even if he met the person one time.”
“Watching my dad growing up, the ways in which he connected with his students, the ways in which he mentored them, the ways in which he invested in their development is everything I do now in my role,” White said. “I think I must have learned how to do that by watching him.”