Clark, Kenneth Bancroft

Psychologists and Their Theories for Students. Editor: Kristine Krapp. Volume 1, Gale, 2005.

Brief Overview

Kenneth Bancroft Clark (1914-), an eminent American social psychologist, educator, and human rights activist, is well known for his expert testimony in the consolidated school desegregation cases known as Brown v. Board of Education. The landmark case, argued by the NAACP legal team before the Supreme Court in 1954, declared school segregation a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The social science testimony of Kenneth Clark was a significant factor in the Court’s decision, and secured his place in the historical record among social psychologists whose research has influenced significant social change in the twentieth century.

Kenneth Clark was born in the Panama Canal Zone on July 24, 1914, and lived there until he was five years of age. His Jamaican-born mother, Miriam Hanson Clark, moved to Harlem with Kenneth and his two-year-old sister, Beulah, in 1919. Kenneth’s father, Arthur Bancroft Clark, a native of the West Indies, would not relinquish his employment with the United Fruit Company in Panama to accompany his family to New York. Miriam Clark supported her two children working as a seamstress in New York’s garment district. Kenneth came of age in Harlem during its political and cultural zenith in the 1920s.

Kenneth was educated in the desegregated public elementary and junior high schools of Harlem. His mother encouraged the intellectual pursuits and academic education of her son, and advocated for his admission to George Washington High School, where he graduated in 1931. That same year he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Clark received his B.A. (1935) and M.S. (1936) degrees from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he became a leader in demonstrations opposing racial segregation. While a graduate student and teaching assistant in the psychology department at Howard University, Clark met and married Mamie Phipps, from Little Rock, Arkansas. The two went on to become the first and second African-American students to earn doctorate degrees in psychology from Columbia University in New York.

It was Mamie Phipps-Clark’s 1939 master’s thesis at Howard University, titled “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children,” that initiated the couple’s extensive intellectual collaboration throughout their professional careers. They studied how young children’s race affects their self-concept and self-esteem. Between 1939 and 1950, the Clarks published their innovative research in the Journal of Social Psychology and other scientific journals. This led to an award of a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1939 that supported their continued investigations on self esteem in black children.

Dr. Clark taught at City College in New York City from 1942 until his retirement in 1975. He authored and collaborated on more than 16 books, and published numerous research papers and journal articles. He served as president of the American Psychological Association from 1970 to 1971, where he promoted an ethic of social responsibility within the profession and confronted the institutional racism within the organization. In 1994, he received APA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Clark believed that the prime goal of serious and relevant social science should be to help society “move toward humanity and justice with minimum irrationality, instability, and cruelty.” His legacy of integrity and compassion distinguish Clark as one of the leading social psychologists of the twentieth century.

Principal Publications

  • Prejudice and Your Child. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955; 1957.
  • The Negro Protest: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King talk with Kenneth B. Clark. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.
  • With Jeannette Hopkins. A Relevant War Against Poverty. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.
  • A Possible Reality: A Design for the Attainment of High Academic Achievement for Inner-City Students. New York: Emerson Hall, 1972.
  • The Educationally Deprived: The Potential for Change. Metropolitan Applied Research Center, 1972.
  • Pathos of Power. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
  • How to Protect Children Against Prejudice. Child Study Association of America, New York: 1983.
  • Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.
  • Intelligence, the University, and Society. United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; Washington DC: 1992.


Harlem: The Early Years

New York’s Harlem village was a thriving African-American community on the threshold of a Renaissance in 1919 when Kenneth Bancroft Clark arrived on a passenger boat from the Panama Canal Zone. Kenneth’s mother, Miriam Hanson Clark, left her husband and home in Panama to bring her children, Kenneth, almost five, and two-year-old Beulah, to live in a country she believed would offer her children more opportunity. Within the decade, the black population of Harlem had increased by 100,000. The Clarks made their home in a series of tenement apartments in integrated neighborhoods, living side by side in the crowded city with Irish and Jewish immigrants.

“My family moved from house to house, and from neighborhood to neighborhood within the walls of the ghetto in a desperate attempt to escape its creeping blight,” Clark later wrote, recalling his early years in Harlem. Soon after the Clarks emigrated from Panama, Congress began to pass laws setting immigration quotas favoring Anglo-Saxons. A revived Ku Klux Klan had spread into the North, and by 1924 had nearly five million members.

Clark’s mother was a skilled seamstress and soon found work in the garment district in New York City to support her children. She became an early shop steward with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, and maintained high hopes for her children. Kenneth’s father, Arthur Bancroft Clark, a native of the West Indies, did not share her optimism. He remained in Panama to keep his employment with the United Fruit Company.

Black pride and black literary voices were strong influences in the Harlem of Clark’s boyhood. It was a time of tremendous creativity and growth of social and political movements. Harlem nurtured black intellectuals such as Arthur Schomburg, curator of the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, a center of intellectual and cultural activity in Harlem, and home to his extensive collection of black literature and historical documents. Black poets and writers including Countee Cullen, who taught at Kenneth Clark’s junior high school; Langston Hughes, Harlem’s Poet Laureate; and Zora Neale Hurston were among the prominent cultural lights of Harlem during Kenneth Clark’s childhood years.

Another lively presence in the 1920s was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born charismatic black leader. Garvey gathered tremendous support for his black nationalist movement in Harlem and by the time the Clarks arrived, Garvey claimed a huge following of African Americans who responded to his call for black pride and economic independence. In 1920, Garvey led a parade of 50,000 people from throughout the United States, the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa through the streets of Harlem with their banners, uniforms, and colorfully decorated cars. Harlem was a vibrant and vital community in the 1920s, and a place that remained close to Clark’s heart throughout his life.

“I first learned about people, about love, about cruelty, about sacrifice, about cowardice, about courage, about bombast in Harlem,” Clark later wrote in his 1965 book, Dark Ghetto. He introduced the book as “a summation of my personal experiences and observations as a prisoner within the ghetto long before I was aware that I was really a prisoner.”

Young Kenneth attended desegregated elementary and junior high schools in Harlem and excelled as a student. When it came time for high school, though, the school counselors who were long accustomed to tracking black youth into vocational education programs were surprised when Miriam Clark arrived at the doorstep with her strong objections to vocational school. She intervened with the counselors to ensure that her bright young son would have a place in the academically focused George Washington High School.

It was his education that helped lead Kenneth Clark out of the prison of the ghetto, and it was his chosen profession as a social psychologist that led him back to Harlem as an “involved observer” using, as he wrote, “the real community, the market place, the arena of politics and power” as his laboratory to “confront and seek to understand the dynamics of social action and social change.”

The Depression of 1929 hit Harlem hard. The numbers of unemployed applying for relief quadrupled within two years. Clark showed an interest in the problems of economics during his high school years, and he might have sustained that interest, but one of his teachers refused to give Kenneth an economics award he had earned for outstanding performance in the class. Despite the sting of discrimination, Clark excelled in his studies and graduated from George Washington High School in 1931. That same year he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Howard University: A Mecca for Black Intellectuals

Intent on the study of medicine, Clark left Harlem for Washington, D.C., to enroll in the historic Howard University, an integrated, co-educational school from its founding days in 1867. Howard was established to train teachers and ministers who would then go out to teach the four million freed slaves and 25,000 free-born blacks in the years following the Civil War. The university became known as a “black intellectual mecca,” attracting talented and distinguished African-American scholars to the faculty and student body, including Alain Locke, professor of philosophy; Ralph Bunche, professor of political science; sociologist E. Franklin Frazier; and Francis Cecil Sumner, chair of the psychology department.

By his sophomore year, Clark had switched his major to psychology. He was influenced by Professor Sumner, the first black American psychologist. Sumner was an Arkansas born scholar and World War I infantry veteran. He began his teaching career at Howard in 1928 and built the psychology department there into the foremost program for the training of African-American psychologists.

“Professor Sumner had rigorous standards for his students,” Clark later said. “And he didn’t just teach psychology. He taught integrity.” Professor Sumner “was a model for me. In fact, he has always been my standard when I evaluate myself.” Clark explained his change in career plans from medicine to psychology in a 1982 New Yorker interview. The method of psychological study that he learned from Professor Sumner, Clark said, provided insight into “the seemingly intractable nature of racism.” Clark would spend much of his professional life investigating the damaging effects of this social problem on the lives of those facing discrimination and of those imposing it upon others.

Another distinguished Howard professor during Clark’s time there was Ralph Bunche. In 1950, he became the first black American to win the Nobel Peace prize. Professor Bunche held the view that segregation and democracy were incompatible. He encouraged Clark’s leadership in opposing Jim Crow legislation. Later, Clark worked with professor Bunche on a research project initiated by the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal. The work was later published as the 1944 book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.

While at Howard, Clark also served as editor of the student newspaper The Hilltop, writing incisive editorials opposing militarism, capitalism, and fascism. He led other students in off-campus demonstrations opposing segregation in public spaces in Washington, D.C. For these civil rights actions, Clark and other students were arrested and booked, then released when an Irish-American officer applauded their courage and had the charges dropped. Clark’s willingness to take his concerns as a social scientist into the arena of real-life problems was to become a guiding philosophy in his professional career. Clark graduated from Howard with a B.A. in 1935 and an M.S. degree in 1936.

Mixing Romance and Intellectual Collaboration

Clark stayed on at Howard to teach psychology during the 1937-38 academic year. Mamie Phipps, a physics and mathematics major from Hot Springs, Arkansas, was one of his students. At Clark’s suggestion, she switched her major field of study to psychology, in part because of the lack of support she experienced in her pursuit of mathematics. It proved to be a fortuitous choice.

At the advice of Professor Sumner, Clark returned to New York in 1939 to enroll in a Ph.D. program in Psychology at Columbia. Mamie continued with her studies at Howard. The friendship, by now, had turned to romance and they became engaged. Kenneth wrote to Mamie’s father with a formal introduction. The reply he received was not warm. “Our objective with regard to Mamie is to have her complete her education and to be equipped to earn her own living if that should ever become necessary,” Dr. Phipps declared. He warned Kenneth that he “would not countenance anything that would interrupt that course.”

Despite the disapproval of her parents, Kenneth and Mamie remained engaged. They corresponded regularly during their separation and visited from time to time. Mamie’s father wrote to her telling her she had “contracted a marriage that I cannot approve.” His dreams for his daughter, he wrote, were for “a brilliant scholastic career; equal brilliance in your chosen field of endeavor.” She would not disappoint him.

In the spring of 1938, the two young psychologists eloped. They kept the marriage a secret from Mamie’s parents and the school authorities while Mamie worked to complete her B.S. degree. Mamie Phipps-Clark graduated magna cum laude from Howard University in 1938.

During the summer following her graduation, Phipps-Clark worked in the law office of William Houston, a civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C., and also made the acquaintance of the civil rights attorney and later Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, a man who would play a significant part in Clark’s career in subsequent years.

Phipps-Clark also worked in a segregated nursery for black children. Following on the research into “self-identification” of Ruth and Gene Horowitz, Phipps-Clark tested the children’s development of racial identity using a coloring test and two pairs of white and brown dolls. These studies were the basis of her master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children.”

Clark recognized the importance of his wife’s work and the two began collaborative research on children’s race recognition and self-esteem. They jointly published their findings in professional journals. This led to an award of a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1939, renewed for Phipps-Clark for two subsequent years. The funds supported their continued investigations on self-esteem in black children and Phipps-Clark’s pursuit of a doctorate degree at Columbia University. During these years the Clarks’ first child, a daughter named Kate, was born. In 1940, Clark completed his studies at Columbia University with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. In 1943, Phipps-Clark became the first woman and the second African American to receive a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia. By this time the busy young couple were parents of their second child, a son named Hilton, born in 1943.

Social Justice and Social Responsibility: A Career Ethic

Clark taught psychology for one semester at Hampton Institute in Virginia, but resigned due to disagreements with the administration. He then worked as a research psychologist with the Office of War Information for the federal government studying morale among black civilians. In 1942 he became a professor of psychology at City College, City University of New York, a position he held until his retirement in 1975. Clark was the first black full professor at City College.

In 1946 the Clarks founded the Northside Child Development Center in Harlem. They received financial assistance from Phipps-Clark’s parents, and volunteer commitments from psychologists and social workers. The center was the first full-time child guidance center in Harlem to offer psychiatric, psychological, and casework services to children and families. One particular contribution was the Center’s intelligence testing services, which provided evidence to counter the public schools’ misplacement of minority children in programs for the mentally retarded. Phipps-Clark served as Center Director until her retirement in 1979.

Expert Testimony at the Supreme Court

In 1950 Clark prepared the report “Effect of Prejudice and Discrimination on Personality Development” for the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth, summarizing his and his wife’s work, and reviewing available literature from other researchers on the psychological effects of segregation. The material became the basis for his first book, Prejudice and Your Child. The Clarks were soon recognized as experts in the field, and were called upon by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to testify in several court cases challenging segregation in public schools.

Clark and others prepared a paper titled “The Effects of Segregation and the Consequences of Desegregation: A social science statement,” used by NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall in 1954 in his arguments before the Supreme Court in the consolidated desegregation cases collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall’s strategy was to prove to the court that actual harm was being done to schoolchildren who were subjected to legal segregation. The court cited Clark’s study as the “modern scientific authority” and concluded that segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect the children’s hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” It was a decision that changed the lives of African-American students for generations, and propelled Clark into a wider community of influence.

Clark was appointed by the Kennedy administration to head the Harlem Youth Opportunities project, a forerunner of the War on Poverty program. His planning document, “Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change,” received national press attention. But political complications in funding that usurped control of the project led Clark to resign in disappointment. His two years of work on the project, however, also led to his 1965 book, Dark Ghetto, which Clark called “a study of the total phenomena of the ghetto.”

In 1966 Clark served as the only black member of the New York State Education Department Board of Regents, where he continued as a member until 1986, working to assure equal educational opportunities for all children. He was founder and president of the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, an organization that served as an “advocate for the poor and powerless in American cities.”

Clark was a prominent activist in the Civil Rights movement and helped to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1967. Many in the leadership of the APA strongly opposed the idea, but equivocation on issues of racial equality were not long to be tolerated. In 1970 Clark was elected President of the Association, and during his year tenure he helped to move the APA toward more social relevance in every facet of its work. At the December 1970 meeting of the Board of Directors, Clark urged the members to give highest priority to determining “ways in which psychologists and psychology can integrate the imperative for social responsibility as a dominant theme of this science and profession.” His concerns led to the creation of the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology, the forerunner of the Board for The Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest.

Clark has received numerous awards, including the APA Gold Medal Award, The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedom Award, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and honorary degrees from nine colleges and universities, including a 2004 honorary degree from Earlham College awarded to both Phipps-Clark and Clark to mark the 50th anniversary of their “historic contributions to the cause of equal rights for all Americans.”

In April 2000, The Kenneth B. Clark Center, dedicated to “using social research to help poor communities share in the benefits of the new information economy,” opened at the University of Illinois, Chicago. At the opening celebration, John Hagedorn, Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, read Clark’s challenging words that illustrate the passion and ethical commitment that have been the touchstones of his life.

It is argued that detachment and objectivity are required for the discovery of truth. But what is the value of a soulless truth? Does not truth require meaning? And does not meaning require a context of values? Is there any meaning or relevant truth without commitment? How is it possible to study a slum objectively? What kind of human being can remain detached as he watches the dehumanization of other human beings? Why should one want to study a sick child except to make him well?


Civil Rights and Social Science

Main points Kenneth Bancroft Clark, the “antiracist psychologist-activist” emerged as a prominent social scientist in the mid-twentieth century largely as a result of his role in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. Clark remained a politically engaged intellectual throughout his career and boldly articulated the democratic ideal of equal rights during decades of legitimized racism and de facto segregation. Clark applied social psychology to leverage democratic social change, and followed the lead of such notable scholars as U.N. diplomat Ralph Bunche, social psychologist Otto Klineberg, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, with whom he shared early educational and professional relationships.

More than a decade prior to his selection as an expert witness in the Supreme Court case outlawing school segregation, Clark worked with Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist commissioned in 1938 by the Carnegie Corporation to direct a two-year study of the condition of African Americans. Myrdal employed 48 writers and researchers including Ralph Bunche and Kenneth B. Clark. The resulting book, An American Dilemma, published in 1944, became a classic in the study of American racism and was included in the social science research supporting public school integration. Clark agreed with Myrdal about the gulf between the American ideals of democracy and brotherhood on the one hand, and the existence of racial prejudice, discrimination, and segregation on the other.

The relevant research Clark provided to the NAACP legal team was cited by the Court in a footnote to its published decision. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” The landmark decision is considered by many Constitutional lawyers and historians to be the most important U.S. Supreme Court decision of the twentieth century. It “was humane, among the most humane moments in all our history,” according to federal circuit court Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, III, author of From Brown to Bakke: the Supreme Court and school integration, 1954-1978.

It can also be said that Clark is among the most humane social psychologists of the twentieth century. This is evident in his articulation of a guiding philosophy of his professional life. “The appropriate technology of serious and relevant social science,” Clark contends, “would have as its prime goal helping society move toward humanity and justice with a minimum irrationality, instability, and cruelty.”

Early research Clark’s keen sense of justice is reflected in his lifelong activism for educational reform, and more particularly in his early work demonstrating the psychological damages inflicted on children when forced by law into separate but very unequal educational settings. His early psychological research, in collaboration with his wife, Mamie Phipps-Clark, was concerned with the nature and development of the self and the problems of ego and racial identification.

In a series of five studies, from 1939 to 1950, the two psychologists systematically examined factors relating to the racial identity of black children:

  • “The Development of Consciousness of Self and the Emergence of Racial Identification in Negro Preschool Children,” Journal of Social Psychology (1939)
  • “Segregation as a Factor in the Racial Identification of Negro Pre-school Children,” Journal of Experimental Education (1939)
  • “Skin Color as a Factor in Racial Identification of Negro Pre-School Children,” Journal of Social Psychology (1940)
  • “Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children,” Readings in Social Psychology (1947)
  • “Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children,” Journal of Negro Education (1950)

The Clarks developed three primary investigative methods for use in their studies of racial self-concept, following on the earlier work of psychologist R. E. Horowitz, whose study “Racial Aspects of Self-Identification in Nursery School Children” was published in 1939. The methods the Clarks used were especially suited to the very young age (three to seven years) of the children they tested. The Clarks considered such factors as the child’s racial identity, age, gender, geographic region, and educational circumstances (segregated or mixed classrooms) in the analysis of their findings.

The research methods the Clarks developed or modified include line drawings, the doll study, and the coloring test.

Line drawings The line drawing test was a modification of the picture technique used in an earlier study by R. E. Horowitz (1939). The Clarks used three sets of line drawings in an attempt to investigate early levels in the development of consciousness of self in preschool children. Set A depicted one white boy, one colored boy, a lion, and a dog; Set B depicted one white boy, two colored boys, and a clown; Set C depicted two white boys, one colored boy, and a hen. The only differences in the line drawings of the boys was skin color.

The Clarks’ subjects in the 1939 study were 150 black children, 75 each of male and female, and 50 each of three-, four-, and five-year-olds from segregated Washington, D.C. nursery schools. When asked to identify themselves or others from the drawings, the majority of children tested identified with the “colored” boy, the Clarks found. The choice of the “colored” boy increased with age while choices of the lion, dog, clown, and hen dropped off in participants by four years of age. The Clarks interpreted this result to indicate “a level of development in consciousness of self where identification of one’s self is in terms of a distinct person rather than in terms of animals or other characters.” The finding that the sharpest increase in identifications with the “colored” boy occurred between the three- and four-year level indicated to the Clarks that “the picture technique might not be as sensitive a device when used with five-year-olds,” or that these five-year-olds “had reached a stage of self-awareness approaching a concept of self in terms of a concrete intrinsic self, less capable of abstractions or external representations.”

The coloring test The coloring test consisted of drawings of an apple, a leaf, an orange, a mouse, a boy, and a girl. In an attempt to determine the influence of skin color as another factor in racial identification of Negro preschool children, The Clarks offered children a box with 24 crayons, including the colors brown, black, yellow, white, pink, and tan. The children were divided into three groups, those with light, medium, and dark skin. Each was asked to pretend that the little girl or boy in the drawing was him- or herself, and to color the picture the same color as they were. The child was then asked to color the opposite gendered picture the color they wanted it to be. The Clarks found that the children with very light skin would choose a color similar to their own light skin, but most of the darker skinned children would color the picture with yellow or white crayons. Some children even used red or green. The Clarks concluded that the children’s choice of inappropriate colors indicated some level of emotional anxiety regarding their own skin color. The dark-skinned children frequently colored the line drawing of the child a shade lighter than their own skin. The Clarks were disturbed to discover that the children’s choice seemed to indicate a trend among light-skinned children “to make identifications contrary to the objective clue of their own skin color.” This was evidence, the Clarks believed, of a further stage of development in self-concept where “characteristics of perceived self become modified by social factors.”

In a later study the Clarks compared the test results of black children in the segregated schools of Washington, D.C. with the responses of children in racially mixed schools in New York City. The evidence indicated that the children in Washington, D.C.’s segregated schools were more aware of color than Negro children in the racially mixed schools in New York. The Clarks discovered significant differences in the color choices between northern and southern children. “Nearly 80% of southern children colored their preferences brown, whereas only 36% of the northern children did,” Clark wrote.

Example With the coloring test, children not only had to choose a crayon of a certain color, but also had to use the crayon long enough to color the drawing. Clark observed that many children spent a very long time looking at all the different colors before making a choice. Some of them, he noticed, would pick out one crayon, look at it, put it back, and then choose another one, usually of a lighter color. Clark interpreted this behavior to indicate “how deeply embedded in their personality is the conflict about what color they are and what color they want to be.”

The dolls test The most famous of the Clarks’ methods of investigation is the dolls test. The Clarks presented preschool children with four identical dolls, two brown and two white. They asked the children to identify the doll that best represented certain positive statements: “Give me the doll you like best; Give me the doll that is a nice doll; Give me the doll that looks bad”; and “Give me the doll that is a nice color.” The majority of the children tested, some as young as three years old, and living in communities as diverse as Philadelphia, Boston, Springfield, Massachusetts, and Pine Bluff, Hot Springs, and Little Rock, Arkansas, demonstrated “an unmistakable preference for the white doll and a rejection of the brown doll.” The Clarks discovered that at an early age “Negro children are affected by the prejudices, discrimination, and segregation to which the larger society subjects them.”

Example Clark reported that some children, when asked to choose between white and brown dolls, reacted with such intense emotions that they became unable to finish the task. “One little girl who had shown a clear preference for the white doll and who described the brown doll as ‘ugly’ and ‘dirty’ broke into a torrent of tears when she was asked to identify herself with one of the dolls.” This extreme emotional reaction, Clark noted, only occurred with northern children. When southern children were presented with a choice of dolls, they were matter of fact in making the choice. Some giggled self-consciously when choosing the brown doll as representing themselves, Clark reported. Other children merely stated flatly: “This one. It’s a nigger. I’m a nigger.”

Clark later recalled, as reported in the 1977 book Simple Justice:

We were really disturbed by our findings, and we sat on them for a number of years. What was surprising was the degree to which the children suffered from self rejection with its truncating effect on their personalities, and the earliness of the corrosive awareness of color. I don’t think we had quite realized the extent of the cruelty of racism and how hard it hit.

Clark summarized the findings of the early research on black children’s self concept in the 1950 report “Effect of Prejudice and Discrimination on Personality Development” that he prepared for the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth. This report caught the attention of the NAACP legal team, who were attempting to prove that segregated schooling caused psychological damage to children.

Lining up with the majority view Clark’s further investigations into the development of racial awareness, racial identification, and racial preference in both black and white children revealed that children’s racial ideas are less rigid and more easily changed than the racial ideas of adults. Clark found that children are more influenced in their opinions by the expressed opinions of the majority of their classmates, than they are by the opinion of a teacher or other person in authority.

Example Clark studied 173 children in New York City between the ages of seven and 13. Using a simple method of drawing different lengths of lines, Clark asked the children “to estimate the length of lines, to compare one line with a standard line, and to match lines with lines of different lengths.” The experimenter pitted small groups of children against other groups, an individual child against a number of other children, and a child against his teacher. Without the knowledge of the child being observed, Clark instructed one of the groups or the teacher to give obviously incorrect answers to the test. When an individual child realized that the majority of his own classmates were unanimous in making an incorrect judgment, he tended to modify his own judgments according to the opinion of the rest. When it was a teacher who tried to influence the child’s judgment with an incorrect answer, however, not one of the children followed the teacher’s judgment completely. Clark concluded that the study, though not concerned directly with racial attitudes, suggests that “children of this age group are more likely to be influenced by friends of their own age than by adults.”

Social Science and the Rule of Law: Desegregation

Clark strove to protect the psychological well-being of all children. Working through the summer of 1953, he gathered all the information he could find on desegregation, completing a comprehensive review of the scientific literature on the subject. He published the results of this research in an article entitled “Desegregation: An Appraisal of the Evidence” in the Journal of Social Issues in 1953.

Clark served on a committee of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), charged with preparing a social-science appendix for an NAACP legal brief to be submitted to the Supreme Court in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. Clark had earlier testified with other social scientists as an expert witness in several cases in the lower courts that were combined for argument before the Supreme Court in the challenge to racial integration of public schools.

The Supreme Court held in the Brown decision that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and thus declared public school segregation a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

“The Supreme Court, in effect, challenged boards of education, public officials, parents, educators, and all citizens who believe in democracy to re-examine American social practices in order to determine whether they damage or enhance the human potentialities of children,” Clark wrote of the Court’s decision. His compilation of research, including as many as 60 references, formed the basis of the social science brief that was pivotal in the Court’s decision.

The social psychologists put forward two arguments in the final social science statement, according to historian John P. Jackson, Jr.:

  • Segregation is psychologically damaging both to minority and majority group children.
  • Desegregation will proceed smoothly and without trouble if it is done quickly and firmly.

Explanation The status as a “rejected minority,” Clark proposed, “has an unquestioned detrimental effect upon the personality of black children.” In his report to the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth, Clark noted that black children subjected to segregation “often react with feelings of inferiority and a sense of personal humiliation. Many of them become confused about their own personal worth.” The effect of segregation on minority group children, Clark wrote, is a “generally defeatist attitude and a lowering of personal ambitions.”

Clark understood that white children also suffer significant psychological damage from the social disease of racial prejudice and segregation. In his book Prejudice And Your Child, he wrote that “Those children who learn the prejudices of our society are also being taught to gain personal status in an unrealistic and non-adaptive way.” White children are “insidiously and negatively disturbed by these contradictions in the American democratic creed.” Healthy forms of self-esteem, built on solid and realistic personal achievement, are subverted by racist attitudes. White children who establish their identity as persons and members of a group through hatred and rejection of others become blocked in the full creativity inherent in their personalities, Clark believed.

Social-science research demonstrated that “the mold of racial prejudice with its fixed social expectations was set at an appallingly early age,” according to historian Richard Kluger in his book Simple Justice. “If anything was to be done about the problem it had to be done very early before despair and self hatred took their fatal toll.”

The Supreme Court decision striking down school segregation was of vast significance for constitutional law and civil-rights litigation, and it changed the lives of generations of school children. The ruling displaced the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine, concluding that “whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority.” The “modern authority” the Court cited was the expert testimony of social psychologists who, “translated their political and ethical beliefs into social science, and their social science into social action,” according to John P. Jackson, Jr., writing about the case in the Spring, 1998 Journal of Social Issues.

Yet despite the Court’s findings outlawing segregation, desegregation of public schools was painfully slow in implementation. The court postponed until 1955 the specific implementation decrees, and in a separate decision, known as Brown II, set guidelines without deadlines for desegregation of the nation’s schools.

Clark provided the court with a compilation of social scientists’ perspectives on the smoothest way to desegregate the schools, but the Court, using the phrase, “with all deliberate speed,” provided the means of delay in the long-overdue process of desegregation.

Clark suggested to the Court several criteria necessary for the most effective method of desegregation:

  • The abolition of all segregated facilities which are so inadequate that it would be economically and otherwise inefficient to attempt to use them.
  • The assignment of all remaining facilities to all individuals without regard to such arbitrary distinctions as race.
  • The restriction of the time allowed for this transition to the minimum required for the necessary administrative adjustments to insure effectiveness and impartiality.
  • The specification of an inflexible deadline, based on the particulars (not necessarily determined by the court) of the administrative adjustments which will take place during the interval.

Despite the social scientists’ warnings, the doctrine of “separate but equal” was replaced with a doctrine of “gradualism,” at a pace Clark considered “contrary to the recommendations presented by the social scientists on the strength of their findings.” Throughout the South, white reaction to the Court’s decision ranged from “defiance, tokenism, and gradualism, to very incremental change,” according to political scientist Dr. Dwight Mullen, in his opening remarks for the program, “Mountain Reflections on Brown vs. Board of Education: 50 Years Later,” held in Asheville, North Carolina in April 2004. Resistance included “Delayed action, white flight, tracking systems, racial gerrymandering, and racial cross over,” Mullen explained.

“The Asheville City School system was the first in the south to integrate the whole system at one time,” according to Dr. John Holt, who served on the Asheville School Board during the period of public school desegregation. “It was not a popular decision. Not popular with anyone,” Holt said.

Resistance to the desegregation order was widespread and virulent throughout the south. Nineteen senators, representing 11 States, and 77 members of the House of Representatives signed “The Southern Manifesto.” The statement condemned the Brown decision.

This unwarranted exercise of power by the Court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the States principally affected. It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.

White segregationists began a massive campaign of resistance. The media participated with publication of IQ studies in a resurgence of the race and intelligence debates. The Brown decision politicized the entire decade.

In the essay “The Desegregation Cases: Criticism of the Social Scientist’s Role,” Clark offered an explanation for the reaction: “Those who attempt to use the methods of social science in dealing with problems which threaten the status quo must realistically expect retaliatory attacks.” He predicted that some social scientists would continue to play a role in the legal and judicial process despite criticism because “they see the valid goals of the law, government, social institutions, religion, and science as identical; namely to secure for man personal fulfillment in a just, stable and viable society.”

Clark’s fame and stature increased dramatically in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. He was widely considered to be a social science expert on the issues of race and the process of desegregation, a status he held well into the next decade. Yet the controversy over the role social science should have played in the Supreme Court’s decision on segregation continues to generate debate more than half a century following the historic Court ruling, and de facto segregation persists in the nation’s schools.

Clark’s 1972 book, A Possible Reality, A Design for the Attainment of High Academic Achievement for Inner-City Students, grew out of his work with the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, Inc. in Washington, D.C. and reflected Clark’s continued concern with the educational achievements of minority and black children. “Urban public school systems,” Clark wrote, have “produced hundreds of thousands of functional illiterates who are unable to compete with educationally more privileged youth on a single competitive standard.”

Racial segregation continues to be “the American way of life,” Clark wrote of the Washington, D.C. public schools that at the time were more than 90% black. “Whites have fled to the surrounding suburbs, and return to the city only to exercise their rights and prerogatives as controllers of the instruments of government, otherwise abandoning the city to its black minorities.” This fact, according to Clark, has led to the abandonment of the “goal of attaining high-quality education through the democratic process of realistic and administratively feasible forms of desegregation.”

“If we continue to frustrate these students educationally, they will be, in fact, the ingredients of the ‘social dynamite’ which threatens the stability of our cities, our economy, and the democratic form of government.”

Articulating the Principles of Democracy

During his long tenure as a professor of psychology at City College, City University of New York, Clark continued to articulate his theories and to work to counter the negative effects of prejudice and discrimination. His book Prejudice and Your Child, published in 1955, was an attempt to provide parents with “a clear understanding of the nature of racial prejudices and the effects of these prejudices upon American society in general and upon the personality development of children.”

Clark wrote in the introduction to this first book:

The “American Creed” which emphasizes the essential dignity of the human personality, the fundamental equality of man, and the inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and equal opportunity, is clearly contradicted by the denial of these to certain human beings because of their race, religion, or nationality background.

Prejudice and Your Child has been called a “how-to” manual for parents concerned about raising children who will grow up freed from the damages of racist thinking and behavior.

In a chapter titled “What Can Parents Do?” Clark listed some requirements for white parents who wish to model and teach more positive racial attitudes:

  • Parents should exercise control over expressions of his own racial feelings.
  • They should face their own prejudice and recognize its manifestations.
  • Parents should establish the same standards for their children’s black friends as for their white friends.
  • They should recognize the wide range of differences in all people and choose interracial friendships based on common interests, compatibility of personality, and other criteria relevant to friendships with members of the same race.

Dark Ghetto: The Involved Observer

In 1962 Clark was called upon by the Kennedy administration to serve as chairman of the Harlem Youth Opportunities project, a forerunner of the War on Poverty program. His planning document for the project, titled “Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change,” received national press attention. The document was published at a time when little or nothing could be found in the social science literature to help a student understand the realities and complexities of the ghetto, Clark said. His two years of work on the project became a starting point for his 1965 book, Dark Ghetto, a work he described as “a study of the total phenomena of the ghetto,” and “the cry of a social psychologist.” To write the book, Clark returned to Harlem as an “involved observer” using “the real community, the market place, the arena of politics and power” as his laboratory to “confront and seek to understand the dynamics of social action and social change.”

Explanations Clark’s social science activist methodology took many forms, according to Layli Phillips, writing about Clark in the book Defining Difference, Race, and Racism in the History of Psychology. “Black activism has historically derived its distinctiveness from its singular focus on contesting and subverting the dehumanization and external social control of black people,” Phillips contends. Characterizing the civil rights activism of the mid-twentieth century as a “decolonial struggle,” Phillips points to Clark’s activist methodology beginning with his days as editor of the Howard University student newspaper Hilltop, which he transformed “from a social register to a political organ,” to his media sophistication as host of the highly rated 1963 Public Broadcasting Service series Negro Protest. In the program Clark hosted conversations with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin, helping to bring the ideas and challenges of these social activists to the mainstream consciousness. Clark also used his training as a social scientist to turn the dominant racist ideology and its spokespersons against the dominant power structure, according to Phillips. He did this through the use of traditional social-scientific research methodology that challenged the academic racism of other social science researchers.

In his systematic approach to the study of the Harlem ghetto, Clark used many traditional social science methods, including observation, tape recordings, and individual and group interviews. Clark sought to discover what the personal and social consequences of ghetto life were, not only for those who lacked the power to change their status, but for those who have the power but are unable or unwilling to use it for social change.

Writing in Pathos of Power, Clark addressed his fellow social scientists: “I ask of them that they share with me the belief that their choice in this use of their intelligence and their training brings with it an obligation to develop the behavioral sciences with that clarity, precision, and sensitivity required for an effective moral technology.” Clark challenged social scientists to engage in a “disciplined human intelligence” that includes moral and ethical concerns in their approach to social psychology. This, Clark contends, is “absolutely necessary for the ultimate practicality—the survival of the human species.”

Responsibilities of the Social Scientist

Clark described the social sciences as “the sciences of human morality.” His understanding of the role of a social psychologist was influenced, among others, by psychologist Kurt Lewin, whose field theory proposed that human behavior is the function of both the person and the environment. Clark responded particularly to what he called Lewin’s “insistence upon action research as an indispensable tool of verification in the social sciences.”

Social scientists have a responsibility to contribute their knowledge, insights, and approach toward an effective and democratic resolution of the complex problems of society, Clark wrote in his 1974 book Pathos of Power. The goal of science itself is “a total concern for truth wherever it may lead, whatever it may threaten.”

“I believe that it is the business of the psychologist, as it is the business of all social scientists, to be concerned with the totality of man and with the health, the stability, and the effectiveness of the human society as a whole.”

Kenneth Bancroft Clark, the antiracist social scientist-activist has demonstrated in his life and his career his unapologetic advocacy and bias “in favor of respect for the life and positive potentials of the individual human being; and a bias against any form of destruction, rejection, dehumanization, and cruelty which impairs the capacity of a human being to live and love and contribute to the welfare of other human beings.”

Historical Context

Racism permeated every aspect of American life throughout Clark’s educational and career years. His theoretical research reflected a deep concern for the psychological damage racism inflicts on the entire community, particularly young children. He came of age during a time of entrenched racial apartheid, enforced by law and sustained by custom. As a self described “social critic and diagnostician,” Clark was powerfully influenced during his years at Howard University, a center for black intellectuals and a laboratory for human rights activism. He began his psychology career energized by his concerns for social justice, social morality, and social responsibility.

“Militant dissatisfaction with the plight of blacks is what drove the place,” historian Richard Kluger wrote of Howard University in his book, Simple Justice. “The whole atmosphere of the place was heady,” Kevin Clark recalled, “and every scholar was eager to relate classroom work to social action.” During the 1930s the radical activism at Howard was sufficient to raise fears of “Communist” activities, bringing calls for Congressional investigations.

Clark turned to the study of psychology with the hope that the scientific discipline might shed some light on the “intractable nature of racism,” a social illness that he believed “had rotted the roots of American life North and South.” However, the very discipline he embraced in his attempt to understand racism had long been used by others to justify segregation and to curtail educational and employment opportunities for people of color. G. O. Ferguson’s 1916 study, The Psychology of the Negro: An Experimental Study found that “the Negro is yet very capable in the sensory and motor powers which are involved in manual work,” and concluded that “training should be concentrated upon these capacities” for the “best return for the educative effort.”

In 1917-18, psychologists administered IQ tests to tens of thousands of World War I military conscripts and concluded that white Anglo Saxons were of superior intelligence compared with other ethnic and racial groups. Princeton professor and eugenicist Carl C. Brigham, in a 1923 paper, “A Study of American Intelligence,” published a racial analysis of the findings of the IQ tests. He concluded that racial mixing had contributed to a decline in American education. Such studies were used to enforce racist immigration quotas with the intent of protecting white Americans from “degeneration.”

After World War I, the former military testing psychologists, now called psychometric psychologists, began testing students at all levels in the educational system. These examiners were white, and whites supplied the standards by which all Americans were measured, according to Robert V. Guthrie, in his book, Even the Rat was White. “Significant numbers of psychological studies during the 1920s and 1930s purported to show a relationship between white ancestry and IQ test scores of black children,” Guthrie reported. The conclusion drew fire from black educators, including W. E. B. Dubois, who said he had “too often seen science made the slave of caste and race hate.” Dr. Horace Mann Bond, in a 1927 article, with tongue-in-cheek parody, characterized the testing of black children as a major indoor sport among white psychologists.

Clark’s early research on racial identity and self esteem was inspired by the work of his wife, Mamie Phipps-Clark. The two psychologists collaborated on several studies and published their findings as “The Development of Consciousness of Self and the Emergence of Racial Identification in Negro Preschool Children,” and “Skin Color as a Factor in Racial Identification of Negro Preschool Children,” in the Journal of Social Psychology in 1939 and 1940. “Segregation as a Factor in the Racial Identification of Negro Pre-School Children” was published in the Journal of Experimental Education in 1939.

In 1935, the perspective in social science regarding innate intellectual inferiority began to shift with the publication of Race Differences by Columbia University Social Psychologist Otto Klineberg, who concluded that “there is no adequate proof of fundamental race differences in mentality, and those differences which are found are in all probability due to culture and social environment.” Klineberg was Kenneth Clark’s academic advisor at Columbia University.

The economic and political crisis brought on by the Great Depression of 1929 resulted in further shifts in thinking within the field of psychology. In 1936 the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) was established. The formal goal of the organization was the analysis of “contemporary psychological problems.” Psychologists who joined the ranks of the SPSSI were deeply concerned with the social inequalities of the times and sought solutions through scientific study and action programs. The organization also served its members as a clearinghouse for employment opportunities. In 1937, Gardner Murphy and others published Experimental Social Psychology, helping to define the emerging new field.

Prior to World War II, Clark and many other psychologists, found work with the Office of War Information. He traveled the country to study the morale of Negro civilians. Historian Howard Zinn, in his A People’s History of the United States, recounts the perspective of one student in a Negro college during the war years: “The Army jim crows us. The Navy lets us serve only as mess men. The Red Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out. Lynchings continue. We are disenfranchised, jimcrowed, spat upon. What more could Hitler do than that?” Such was the climate of the times when Clark began his professional career as one of a very few Negro psychologists in the United States in the mid-twentieth century.

In 1945, the annihilation of the civilian population of Hiroshima, Japan, by the U.S. atomic bomb deeply troubled Clark. Writing in his 1974 book, Pathos of Power, he said:

I found myself re-examining my ideas about the characteristics of human beings; the problems of justice and injustices; possible safeguards against human cruelties; the role of religion, philosophy, and science as realistic, moral, and practical barriers to human chaos and ultimate destructiveness.

It was the early research of Mamie and Kenneth Clark, published 14 years before, that provided the crucial social science evidence in the landmark 1954 civil rights victory of Brown v. Board of Education. As recently as the 1950s, 21 states and the District of Columbia still required or permitted racial segregation in public schools. The Clarks’ research provided persuasive evidence to the Supreme Court that segregation itself means inequality. The victory was not without backlash, however.

One of the fiercest opponents to the desegregation ruling was Dr. Henry E. Garrett, a Columbia University professor and the academic advisor of Mamie Clark. Professor Garrett believed that black and white differences could not be changed by any environmental intervention.

“The field of psychology was itself a microcosm of the larger world in terms of its contending progressive and conservative factions and its various supports for and impediments to activism and social change,” Dr. Layli Phillips wrote in the book Defining Difference, Race and Racism in the History of Psychology. And throughout Clark’s career, there continued to be those psychologists who used their scientific research and expertise to bring an end to discrimination, and those others who turned their studies to the support of racist beliefs. As Andrew S. Winston wrote in his introduction to Defining Difference: Race and Racism in the History of Psychology, “Hatred and support for oppression could be wrapped in a value neutral cloak.”

Clark served as chief project consultant for the planning stage of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited for two years, beginning in 1962. He began a systematic approach to the study of the ghetto as an “involved observer” of the conditions of Harlem youth. These observations and experiences in Harlem became the starting point for his 1965 book Dark Ghetto. The summer of 1964 brought violent protests to American ghettos, and Clark’s book provided a relevant social psychologist’s view of the dynamics of ghetto life. Even after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the revolts continued. “It was so long in coming,” Clark wrote, “it served merely to remind many Negroes of their continued rejection and second class status.”

Clark’s influence with the young black activists began to wane with the rise of the black nationalist movement in the mid 1960s. His integrationist approach was viewed with skepticism. Clark, in turn, called the separatist movement “sick, regressive, and tyrannical.” He considered it a manifestation of “racial self hatred,” and “a ritualized denial of anguished despair and resentment of the failure of society to keep its promises.” For the social scientist and scholar Clark, the black Nationalist movement was “anti-intellectual. Its main source of energy is emotionalism rather that thought,” he charged.

Clark’s life and work spanned the most turbulent and violent century in human history, through years of crisis, rebellion, and “shamefully inadequate” progress in civil rights. Through it all, this remarkable social psychologist called for the “trained intellect” to be applied to the “ultimate moral question of human survival” as its highest and best use. Progress with social change is not linear, Clark contended, and many of the same racist challenges he spent a lifetime seeking to understand and eradicate are again surfacing.

“We have not yet made education a process whereby students are taught to respect the inalienable dignity of other human beings,” he wrote in a 1993 article, “Unfinished Business: The Toll of Psychic Violence.” Clark believes that when empathetic behavior is encouraged and rewarded, we will protect all our children from ignorance and cruelty, and by helping them to understand the commonality of being human, “we will be educating them.”

Critical Response

Kenneth and Mamie Phipps-Clark’s primary research on racial identification and preference in black school children, published from 1939 to 1950, was replicated and extended by the work of various social scientists in the 1940s and early 1950s. The Clarks’ conclusion that segregated schools cause psychological damage to black children was a view shared by 90% of social scientists surveyed in a 1948 study by M. Deutscher and Isador Chein, titled “The Psychological Effects of Enforced Segregation: A Survey of Social Science Opinion.” The study also revealed that 83% of social scientists surveyed believed that racial segregation also has detrimental psychological effects on members of the privileged group.

The same year as the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, Gordon Allport published The Nature of Prejudice. Allport observed that contact between groups is a necessary component to reducing prejudice. He proposed that when such contact results in a “true acquaintanceship,” it is more likely to lessen bias and dispel prejudice. When the sustained contact is genuine and occurs among individuals who regard themselves as being of equal status, the prejudice is further reduced. Allport’s view, known as the “contact hypothesis,” became a principal argument in support of racial integration.

“To be maximally effective,” Allport wrote, “contact and acquaintanceship programs should lead to a sense of equality in social status, should occur in ordinary purposeful pursuits, avoid artificiality, and if possible enjoy the sanction of the community in which they occur.”

In an effort to provide empirical evidence to the NAACP about the psychological harm to black children of racial segregation, Kenneth Clark, Isador Chein, and Stuart Cook drafted the social science statement from an impressive list of 60 research references that became part of the NAACP legal brief presented to the Supreme Court. Thirty-two social scientists signed the document, agreeing in principle with the premise that legally imposed segregation is psychologically damaging to the personalities of young children.

Social Science Activism and Scrutiny

It was Clark’s move into the arena of social change as an expert witness in the Brown v. Board of Education decision that exposed both his research findings, and the fact of their use in the Supreme Court decision, to widespread scrutiny. The debate has continued into the twenty-first century as the role of social scientists’ opinions in legal and public policy issues continues to be a subject of debate and commentary in the professional journals.

Dr. Bruno Bettelheim of the University of Chicago, writing a 1956 review of Clark’s book Prejudice and Your Child, charged that there was “no scientific evidence that racial segregation damages the human personality.” Other social scientists shared the concern, including strident voices of those scientists who promoted theories of race differences in intelligence (RDI) as grounds for segregation. Dissenting opinions also came from the legal profession, whose members were unaccustomed to social science evidence bearing so much weight in the legal decisions of the Court system.

New York University professor of law Edmond Cahn responded promptly to the Brown decision with a 1955 New York University Law Review article. With reference to the Social Science legal brief, Cahn charged that the constitutional rights upheld in the Brown decision should not “rest on any such flimsy foundation as some of the scientific demonstrations in these records.” Cahn felt that the significance of the contribution of social science experts to the desegregation cases was exaggerated; and that the social science research conveyed little or no information beyond what he called “literary psychology.”

Herbert Wechsler, writing in his 1959 book Toward Neutral Principles of Constitutional Law, pointed out that while Brown v. Board of Education ruled that racial segregation was a “denial of equality for the minorities against whom it is directed,” it failed to consider the “associational rights of segregationist whites.” According to law professor John C. Brittain, “Wechsler theorized that Brown had created a conflict between the whites’ freedom of association, which presumably included the right not to associate with blacks, and certain principles of equality with respect to blacks.” Wechsler sought a “neutral principle,” one that could reconcile the two constitutional maxims, but concluded that this “was not likely and that there probably was a principle that would elevate racial equality over the free-association rights of segregationists,” according to Brittain.

But the “most intense and specific criticism,” Clark said, came from Ernest van den Haag, professor of social philosophy at New York University. He published a critical rejection of the Brown decision in the Villanova Law Review. In the 1960 article, “Social Science Testimony in the Desegregation Cases,” van den Haag questioned the validity of the Clarks’ findings, specifically the study results obtained from black children in segregated schools in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, compared with the same tests administered to children in the non-segregated schools of Springfield, Massachusetts. Van den Haag disagreed with the Clarks’ findings that racial segregation is psychologically damaging to children. He suggested that a more accurate analysis of the comparative data would “demonstrate that the damage is less with segregation and greater with congregation.” Van den Haag also objected to what he called “compulsory congregation.” He proposed maintenance of separate schools for both whites and blacks and creation of additional schools open to both races.

Segregationist Psychologists

“Psychology’s scientific racists fought hard to provide statistical evidence to prevent racial integration in the public schools,” according to Robert V. Guthrie, writing in the book Even the Rat Was White. One of the most prominent of the segregationist psychologists was Henry E. Garrett, a militant opponent of the 1954 Supreme Court decision. According to the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism, Garrett “used his credentials as a psychologist—and as a past president of the APA—to legitimize his opinion.” Garrett was Chair of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University from 1941 to 1955, during the time Kenneth and Mamie Phipps-Clark desegregated Columbia’s Ph.D. psychology program.

According to Professor Andrew S. Winston, author of “Science in the Service of the Far Right: Henry E. Garrett, the IAAEE, and the Liberty Lobby,” published in the Spring 1998 Journal of Social Issues:

In the 1950s Garrett helped organize an international group of scholars [the International Association for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics (IAAEE)] dedicated to preventing race mixing, preserving segregation, and promoting the principles of early twentieth century eugenics and “race hygiene.”

Henry Garrett persisted in his efforts to find a scientific basis for segregation throughout his career. In his tract “How Classroom Desegregation Will Work,” distributed during the 1960s, Garrett “supplied weak comparative IQ test data between whites and blacks and cranial capacities to argue for the end of compensatory education programs such as Head Start.”

Other anti-segregationist critics followed Garrett. Audrey Shuey, chair of the psychology department at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, published a 1958 compilation of several hundred studies comparing intelligence test results for black and white Americans. In her article “The Testing of Negro Intelligence,” Shuey’s conclusion that the mass of data indicated racial differences in intelligence was right in line with the racist thinking of her academic advisor at Columbia, Henry E. Garrett.

A Measure of Self-Esteem

“Racial preference behavior is not synonymous with self esteem, particularly for young children,” according to Vinay Harpalani, in an essay “Simple Justice or Complex Injustice?: The Ironic Legacies of Brown v. Board of Education.” Harpalani cites the work of several researchers, including that of Margaret Beale Spencer in the early 1980s, who found that most black children who demonstrate a preference for the white doll still score high on self-esteem measures. Harpalani contends that the Clarks’ interpretation of data “was affected by an ethos of black pathology.”

In a 1970 replication of the Clarks’ doll study by Hraba and Grant, the researchers found that similar results to those of the Clarks’ when measuring racial awareness and self identification. But when measuring for racial preference, Hraba and Grant found that black children and white children both preferred the doll of their own race. The researchers attributed this change in results to an enhanced sense of racial pride in the children.

Clinical psychologist Darlene Powell-Hopson replicated the Clarks’ early findings in the doll tests. In a 1985 study, Powell-Hopson found that nearly two-thirds of black children tested preferred white dolls. Three out of four of the black children said that these black dolls looked “bad.” Powell-Hopson believes that the children’s preferences for the white dolls is less about self esteem than it is a reflection of a race awareness absorbed from the denigrating racial attitudes of the surrounding white culture. In another doll study in 1988, Powell-Hopson and Hopson added an element of positive reinforcement to the classic test. Whenever a child chose the black doll, the researchers encouraged the children to hold up the black doll while repeating positive statements about the doll, such as “pretty,” “nice,” “handsome,” and “smart.” When all the children were again asked which doll they preferred, both black and white children were more likely than before to choose the black doll. The opinions of others weighed significantly in their own changed opinions.

Roy L. Brooks, law professor at the University of San Diego, argues in his 1996 book Integration or Separation: A Strategy for Racial Equality that the Clarks’ misinterpreted the dolls test when they concluded that segregation harmed the self esteem of black children. Like other earlier critics, notably Ernest van den Haag, Brooks argues that the dolls studies, if correctly interpreted, would indicate that black children in segregated schools demonstrated higher self esteem than northern children in nonsegregated schools.

Brooks maintains that racial integration has failed in that it neither strengthened black identity, nor improved or equalized scholastic performance. Brooks cites what he calls “dignity harms,” present in integrated schools, and the power and persistence of “white racism” as reasons for his call for a policy of limited, voluntary separation that “neither subordinates nor stigmatizes.”

Sociologist Dr. Doris Y. Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to be hired as a full-time regular faculty member at the University of Kentucky, also disagrees with the Clarks’ conclusion that segregated schools are psychologically damaging to black children. In a 1996 article “Integration Dilemmas in a Racist Culture,” Wilkinson contends that “public school integration and the associated demolition of the black school has had a devastating impact on African-American children.” Forced public school integration has impacted “their self esteem, motivation to succeed, conceptions of heroes or role models, respect for adults, and academic performance,” Wilkinson says. She warns that unless rational alternatives are developed that take into account “the uniqueness of the African-American heritage,” the situation will become even more destructive to the health of the children and to the nation as a whole.

Wilkinson asks, as others have, if “the constitutionality of segregation could have been questioned on grounds other than its psychological effects.” She refutes the Supreme Court finding that segregated schools were “inherently unequal.” The decision that declared the black school fundamentally deficient, she says, “did not apply to the dedication and capabilities of teachers, the unbiased learning environment, or the opportunities for developing healthy self-attitudes.” Wilkinson also criticizes busing, a hardship borne primarily by poor and working-class children. “What could be more harmful than taking children away from familiar environments for the purposes of implementing a dominant-sector philosophy?”

Howard University psychologist W. Curtis Banks, author of the 1992 book African American Psychology Theory, Research, and Practice, reviewed the findings in the Clarks’ doll studies. He concluded that the results could have been attributed to chance and that the children under study may not have fully understood what they were being asked to do.

In the article “Even Their Soul is Defective,” published in The Psychologist in March 1999, social scientists Dr. Kwame Owusu-Bempah and Dr. Dennis Howitt write that “racism is undeniably harmful to black children (and adults), but it is not their self-worth that is damaged by it. Rather, it is their life chances which are restricted by racism, especially institutional racism.” The British social scientists argue that psychology perpetuates racism. They contend:

Biological racism—a belief in the hereditary inferiority of the black “race”—has been replaced within the discipline by cultural and professional racism. Black people’s plight is now attributed to either their “defective culture” or psychological make-up, or both. Characterizing the Clarks’ “let’s pretend studies,” and others like them, as “seriously flawed,” Owusu-Bempah and Howitt charge that the notion of black self-hatred “is a myth that persists in theory, policy, and practice.” They propose that the racist system itself must be the target for change rather than the psychology of individual children.

“I am not convinced that there has ever been strong evidence of dramatically lower self-esteem among blacks,” Psychologist Bernadette Gray-Little of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says. Using a technique called meta-analysis, she reanalyzed data from 261 studies assessing black self-esteem and concluded that black youth exhibited self-esteem that was at least as healthy as that of their white counterparts.

“Many people confuse self-esteem with the status a racial group occupies in society,” Gray-Little said in a March 26, 2000, Washington Post article. “Frequently, doll tests and other devices intended to measure self-esteem instead capture participants’ sense of how their racial groups are viewed by the wider society.” Gray-Little also offers the hypothesis that black self-esteem may be linked to group pride, and the sense of satisfaction blacks derive from their ethnic identification.

The Persistence of Racism

In the more than five decades since the desegregation of American public schools, and the Civil Rights victories eliminating the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, the problems of racial inequity persist. James M. Jones, in the Journal of Social Issues in 1998, writes about “The New American Dilemma.” Jones proposes what he calls a psychological critical race theory to explain “the gap between apparent positive racial attitudes and interracial behaviors and persistent racial inequalities.” According to Jones, “Something happened on the way to racial equality.”

In a 1998 PBS Frontline interview Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chair of Harvard University’s Afro-American study program, recalled that

Thurgood Marshall told his associates the day of Brown v. Board, “it’s all over now, boys, in five years we won’t even need the NAACP, we won’t even need advocacy groups, we will all be members of the American mainstream.” And as we know all too painfully that didn’t take place.

“There are now nine times as many African Americans in prison or jail as on the day of the Brown decision. An estimated 98,000 blacks were incarcerated in 1954, a figure that has risen to 884,500 today,” according to the Washington, D.C. advocacy group The Sentencing Project in the 2004 report, “Schools And Prisons: 50 Years After Brown v. Board of Education.” This and other harsh realities faced by the black community help to explain an undeniable racial achievement gap in education. “When placed within the broader context of race relations in American society, Harvard Professor Pedro A. Noguera contends:

[T]he gap is merely another reflection of the disparities in experience and life chances for individuals from different racial groups. In fact, given the history of racism in the United States, and the ongoing reality of racial discrimination, it would be even more surprising if an achievement gap did not exist. If the children of those who are most likely to be incarcerated, denied housing and employment, passed over for promotions, or harassed by the police did just as well in school as those whose lives are largely free of such encumbrances, this would truly be remarkable news. But this is not the case, and if we recognize that educational patterns generally mimic other social patterns, we should not be surprised.

The Controversy Continues

Criticisms of the validity of the Clarks’ findings and the role of social scientists in the Brown decision seem to emerge on every celebrated anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision, and numerous books and essays have been published on the issue. The book What Brown V. Board of Education Should Have Said: The Nation’s Top Legal Experts Rewrite America’s Landmark Civil Rights Decision, published in 2001, consists of essays by nine of America’s top constitutional and civil rights experts writing about how they might have argued the case.

Another book, The Inseparability of Law and Morality: The Constitution, Natural Law, and the Rule of Law by legal scholar Ellis Washington, objects to both the validity of the Clarks’ social science research and the use of social science research as evidence in the Supreme Court decision. Writing in the journal Issues & Views in 2003, Washington stated that the Brown decision “was based on the false social science of racial relativism,” and the “flawed scientific research of Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Phipps-Clark.” Professor Washington objects to what he calls the “public policy fiction” that “black children must be allowed to attend public school with white children in order to get equally educated.” He also contends that the decision of the Court should have been based on “explicit Constitutional guarantees,” for which legal precedent already exists, rather than what he calls “pop psychology.”

In his book Forced Justice, sociologist David Armor examines the impact and effectiveness of court-ordered desegregation. Armor questions the social science research, particularly the Clarks’ doll studies, and the finding that low self-esteem in black children is a result of segregated classrooms. Armor contends that the court-ordered desegregation was based on questionable interpretations of the Clarks’ studies.

Howard H. Kendler, in a 2002 article in the journal History of Psychology, questions the social activism of Kenneth Clark and other social scientists who drafted the social science statement used in the Supreme Court desegregation case. Kendler asks if the social scientists operated as “detached scientists or political advocates.” John P. Jackson, Jr., author of the 2001 book Social Scientists for Social Justice, takes issue with Kendler’s position that Clark and the other social scientists “allowed their political and social agenda to warp their scientific findings.” Jackson contends that Clark and others were not making “value claims on the desirability of a given social situation,” but rather, based on the available social science research, were “offering empirical evidence on the psychological impact of the social situation.”

Historian James T. Patterson, in his 2001 book Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and its Troubled Legacy, acknowledges that the expectations for the success of integration were unrealistically high in 1954, but Patterson contends that the Supreme Court decision helped to bring substantial improvements in race relations. According to book reviewer Timothy N. Thurber, Patterson credits the Warren Supreme Court for helping to “set the stage for other branches of government to act more forcefully on behalf of racial equality.”

Much of Kenneth Bancroft Clark’s work was shadowed by his role in the Supreme Court desegregation cases, and the subsequent and ongoing criticisms of his research conclusions about the psychological damages to young persons brought about through legal segregation. However, his life and work was always focused on the well-being of all children, and on the elimination of racism in America. Clark worked to promote a “morally and socially responsible science.” He believed that “Psychology and psychologists, together with other behavioral scientists, must dare to assume the new and difficult responsibility of serving as ombudsmen for society,” and that “Psychology must now assume its proper role of enhancing and conserving human resources without apology and with full scientific integrity.”

Theories in Action

The volatile issues of racism, racial identity, and equal protection of the law came dramatically to the forefront in the second half of the twentieth century. These issues continue to be the subject of research and public debate in the twenty-first century. The pioneering work of early social psychologists such as Kenneth Bancroft Clark and Mamie Phipps-Clark remains relevant today. It provides a starting point for continued investigations into how children develop a healthy personal and social identity and self-esteem in an increasingly multicultural environment; and what the proper role of social science is in helping to inform effective public policy change that will bring about social justice and harmony in a diverse and endangered world.


“Were efforts to desegregate the public schools worthwhile?” Researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, interviewed 242 graduates from six racially diverse high schools across the country. The five-year study, “How Desegregation Changed Us: The Effects of Racially Mixed Schools on Students and Society,” was published in 2004. Researchers asked the question of students in the class of 1980; 75% of the participants were white and 60% were non-white graduates.

“Our central finding is that school desegregation fundamentally changed the people who lived through it, yet had a more limited impact on the larger society,” the researchers concluded.

The vast majority of graduates across racial and ethnic lines greatly valued the daily cross-racial interaction in their high schools. They found it to be one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives, the best—and sometimes the only—opportunity to meet and interact regularly with people of different backgrounds.

“The Race Connection,” a study by Thomas Dee of Swarthmore College, analyzed data from a “randomized field trial of the effects of class size on student performance.” Dee found that both white and black students perform better on the Stanford Achievement Test when they have a teacher of the same racial background as they are. “Black students learn more from black teachers and white students from white teachers,” Dee concluded. Only 8% of public school teachers nationwide are black, Dee notes, though 17% of the students are African American. This may account for the “persistent racial gap in student performance,” Dee suggests.

In the commentary “The Impact of ‘Brown’; Fifty Years Later, Still More Rhetoric Than Commitment,” in The Post Standard of Syracuse, New York, Linda Carty, and Paula C. Johnson write that “The societal context of the Brown decision in 1954 parallels Reconstruction in that despite grand legal pronouncements on racial equality, both eras suffered from lack of political, institutional, and individual will to enforce rights and opportunities for people of color.” Carty, chair of the African-American Studies Department at Syracuse University, and Johnson, professor of law at Syracuse, cite the Harvard Civil Rights Project report indicating that children of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, “attend substantially segregated and poorly funded primary and secondary schools.” For Brown to have worked, the writers contend, would have “necessitated government policy addressing inequality in housing, employment, social welfare, health care, the legal system, and many other realms of society.”

Professor Pedro A. Noguera of Harvard University, and Antwi Akom, a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, in 2000 studied “The Significance of Race in the Racial Gap in Academic Achievement,” an issue, they say, that has historically generated “controversy and paralysis for those charged with figuring out what should be done.” It is at the level of policy and practice, the researchers contend, that lack of clarity on these issues is most apparent. The researchers put forth many explanations for the disparities in achievement that have been found in almost every school in the nation. They cite the close correspondence between test scores and broader patterns of social inequality within American society, particularly manifest in “woefully inadequate” inner-city schools. But the racial achievement gap is evident also in the scores of middle-class African-American and Latino students.

Noguera and Akom suggest that the explanation may be found in understanding “the ways in which children come to perceive the relationship between their racial identities and what they believe they can do academically. Racial images rooted in stereotypes, which diminish the importance of intellectual pursuits,” the researchers believe, “limit the aspirations of young African-American and Latino students.” Noguera and Akom believe that if racial inequities are ever to be eliminated, “it is more likely to occur in education than in any other sector.” Public education, they contend, “remains the most democratic and accessible institution in the country,” and “all that remains of the social safety net for poor children.”

The Evolution of Identity

Psychologist Dr. Eun Rhee, of the University of Delaware, received a five-year grant in 2002 to study the development of racial identity in children and its impact on their well-being. The project, “Racial Identity and Psychosocial Consequence,” is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Rhee is concerned with the “development of social identities, particularly racial identity, in African-American, Asian-American, and European-American children.” Rhee’s research focuses on the “role of social factors, such as perceptions of group status; on the development of racial identity; and the impact of this identity on mental health, social behavior, and development of inter-group attitudes.” She is investigating how racial identity evolves and how children of color learn to cope with perceived discrimination as they grow older. Her methods also include interviews with parents to discover what ideas and support they offer their children, and what degree of preparation they offer to help their children cope with discrimination.

Raising unbiased kids is an outcome of diversity education that begins in the home, according to Derek S. Hopson and Darlene Powell Hopson. The Hopsons are authors of the book Teaching Your Children to be Successful in a Multicultural Society. They suggest that positive and realistic interactions with others are a necessary part of preventing racial distrust, conflict, aggression, and violence.

“Segregation is damaging to the individual, damaging to the society’s claim to justice, and damaging to whites as well as blacks,” Clark said in a 1995 Washington Post interview. However, de facto segregation persists throughout the country and at all levels of society, perpetuating racial tensions.

In a 2003 study published in the Journal of Social Psychology, K. Kowalski assessed preschool-aged children’s attitudes toward their own group and two different ethnic or racial groups: Japanese and Mexican. The study was done in the Southwest United States with 70 children (32 girls and 38 boys) from three to five years of age. The authors used dolls and asked the children to assign positive and negative traits to the dolls that represented their own racial or ethnic group and that of two other groups. When forced to choose between their own group and an ethnically or racially different group, the researcher discovered, the children clearly favored their own group. Kowalski concludes that “young children’s positive own-group feelings do not necessarily entail negative out-group attitudes.”

Thandeka, author of Learning to be White: Money, Race, and God in America, believes that racism is not innate, but something we are taught through custom and beliefs that are passed from one generation to the next. Thandeka is a minister and teacher at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Like Clark, Thandeka believes that whites, too, are harmed by racism “The first racial victim of the white community is its own child,” she said in a 2004 interview in the Dallas Morning News. Children are forced to adapt to the way of life of the community or risk being ostracized, she says. Thandeka, whose name was given her by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, believes that much of the racial division in America is due to social and family pressures to declare a racial identity at an early age. The chosen racial identity becomes a marker that divides us, she said. Thandeka suggests that an obsession with problems of race can divert us from the realities of class in our society. Many whites are as much victims of an unjust economic order as blacks, she notes.

Debra Dickerson, author of the book The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners, believes that it is “everybody’s responsibility to fight injustice. This is America,” she says. “We pride ourselves on being the land of the free. It’s not just black people’s job to fight against injustice. It’s America’s job because it hurts America.” Dickerson discussed her book on National Public Radio with host Tavis Smiley in January 2004. Dickerson proposes:

I think we ought to have a moratorium on mentioning white folk. And that’s really, really hard to do, and again it’s not because racism is not a problem. Racism is a problem. But the answer is not to constantly be trying to fix other people’s hearts and minds. All we need for them to do is leave us alone. They don’t have to learn to love us. We have to learn to love and believe in ourselves.

“Americans are choosing to opt out of any racial classifications on the Census, college applications, and the SAT,” according to Eric Wang writing in The Cavalier Daily, the online publication of the University of Virginia. “We cannot talk about racial progress without using the language of race and collective identities,” he says. Given the growing diversity and multicultural face of America, the five commonly used racial categories, according to Wang, “fail to capture the full array of diversity in our society.”

Relevance to Modern Readers

Discussions about the issue of race and identity, and debates about who is harmed and who benefits from segregation, continue, even as the demographics of America change to reflect a diversity of racial and ethnic blending that defies easy classification. For Census 2000, 63 possible combinations of the six basic racial categories exist, including six categories for those who report exactly one race, and 57 categories for those who report two or more races. Clearly the issue of identity is still in flux. Perhaps Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s brown and white dolls will need multi-hued companions to reflect the changing face of America.

New ways of understanding black identity and community are emerging, according to psychologist Layli Phillips, and black Americans are finding ways to articulate their sometimes very profound differences. Yet the persistence of racism and discrimination still provides a foundation for common cause.

The relevance of the life and work of Kenneth Clark is perhaps less in the doll study experiments, for which he is most famous, but more in his consistent call for a social psychology that is relevant and responsive to the problems of society, and capable of informing public policy that will bring about a more just and humane society.