Brown v. Board of Education
Prof. Bill Long 10/27/05
Focusing on Kenneth B. Clark
Among the several things you notice when you (re)examine this landmark decision (347 US 483 (1954)) is that it is very brief and that the ground of its decision seems based less on law than on the social sciences. This essay will consider the latter point and will focus on some of the work of Kenneth B. Clark, listed as the first "modern authority" cited by the Court in FN 11 of the opinion.
A "Sense of Inferiority"
Without quoting any previous decision of the Court or pointing to the work of any study or scholar, the Court simply said:
"To separate them (i.e., "Negroes") from other of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."
Then, however, we see that the Court was actually relying on scholarly studies when it quickly added: "this finding is amply supported by modern authority." The first "modern authority" it cites is Kenneth B. Clark's, Effect of Prejudice and Discrimination on Personality Development (1950).
Who was Kenneth Bancroft Clark? He died only recently (May 2005) at age 90, and his obituary notice tells us something about him. Born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1914, he moved with his mother and older sister to Harlem when he was five. After finishing high school he entered Howard University in Washington D.C. where Ralph Bunche, a future Nobel Prize winner, was his mentor in political science. He earned a B.A. and M.A. from Howard in Psychology and then, in 1940, became the first African-American to earn a Ph. D. in psychology from Columbia. In 1946 he founded, with his wife, the Northside Testing and Consulation Center in NYC to provide psychological services to Harlem residents. He began to be interested in the public school system in NYC shortly therafter.
Dolls and Coloring
He made his "name" in the field of psychology as it relates to race and learning with studies on dolls and coloring. The first study, which became the basis for the study cited by the Court, emerged from an experiment he and his wife (Mamie Phipps Clark) conducted using dolls bought for $.50 each at Woolworth's on 125th St. in Harlem. They showed groups of black and white children two black and two white dolls and asked them to choose the doll that was nice, pretty and bad. The test results showed that both groups of children associated the white dolls with praiseworthy characteristics. He concluded that the African-American students, "like other human beings who are subjected to an obviously inferior status in the society in which they live, have been definitely harmed in the development of their personalities."
Less well known, but no less important for documenting the sense of inferiority felt by Black children is their study which appeared in the Journal of Negro Education (1950) entitled "Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children." The test here was different. Let Clark explain:
"This paper presents results from one of the several techniques devised and used by the authors to investigate the development of racial identification and preference in Negro children" (341).
One hundred sixty Black children, ages 5-7, were give a sheet of paper on which there were outline drawings of a leaf, an apple, an orange, a mouse, a boy and a girl. S/he was also given a standard box of crayons. The child was first asked to color the non-human objects "in order to determine whether there was a stable concept of the relationship of color to object" (342). Once this was determined, the child was told to color the child of the same sex "the color you are." Then, after coloring the child the "color you are," the children were instructed to "color her (or him) the color you like little boys (or girls) to be."
More on the Study and Its Results
The breakdown of the 160 Black children was as follows. Sixty-six were from the South and 94 from the North. They also were divided into age cohorts (5 or 6 or 7 years old) as well as the complexion of their skin (light, medium, or dark). Some of the numbers were as follows: With respect to the Southerners, there were 4 light-skinned, 36 medium-skinned and 26 dark-skinned children, while among the 94 Northern children were 25 light-skinned, 46 medium-skinned and 23 dark-skinned children. After eliminating "fantasy" or "irrelevant color" responses, Clark concluded as follows: "48 percent of the subjects colored their preferences in Brown, 36 percent of them colored their preferences in white and 16 percent used a bizarre or irrelevant color" (344). Their conclusions, when the children are considered in the aggregate:
"When all of the children refusing to use the color brown or black are considered, it is significant that 52 percent of this total group rejects the color brown. Only 5 of the 77 children who colored their preference brown or black used the black crayon. These results tend to support previous results, although the trend was seen more definitely with the Dolls test" (344).
Clark next broke down the data by age, and they discovered that "rejection of brown color decreases with age." At the seven year level, for example, the majority (65%) of children indicate their preference for Brown. After giving a few more tables which present information about how children at various ages perceive the skin color brown, they turned to an analysis of the different responses between Northern and Southern children of different skin shades. They say:
"Table VIII indicates a significant difference between Northern and Southern children in their skin color preferences. A substantial majority of Southern children (70%) color their preference brown while only 36 percent of the Northern children indicate a preference for brown. On the other hand 44 percent of the Northern children color their preference white while only 25 percent of the Southern children do so" (345-46).
They go on:
"It is significant to note from Table VIII that additional evidence of greater emotional conflict in the Northern children is suggested by the fact that 20 percent of these children make an irrelevant response (colored their preference in a bizarre color). Only 5 percent of the Southern children colored their preference in a bizarre color" (346).
When shade of skin (light, medium, dark) is factored into the equation, the studies showed that "a substantial majority of the Northern dark and medium 6 year-old children (77%) color their preferences white--while 67 percent of the Southern dark and medium children of this age color their preference brown" (346).
The next essay summarizes how they conclude their paper and then asks how the Court used this kind of data.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long