American psychology triumphed that morning 60 years ago when a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court rejected the racial segregation of children in public schools. The work of Kenneth Clark, a black psychologist, proved decisive in the thinking of the justices.
His studies, conducted with his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, using black and white dolls, helped the court see the grave harm in segregation. The choices of the black children revealed a deep sense of inferiority, diminishing their motivation to learn and their capacity to succeed in life.
The court argued the law and the morality of the matter in Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling the most important court decision of the past century. The psychology at work amounted to what plainly could be seen. It countered powerfully the contention that segregated schools essentially were equal.
Was Clark then celebrated by his peers in the profession, psychology having achieved a landmark moment, receiving validation as a science, something it had failed to gain in previous decades?
Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr., and Ellen M. Crouse examined the response of the American Psychological Association in a paper published 12 years ago. Benjamin long has been a leading psychologist, teacher, researcher and historian of psychology. He retired from Texas A&M in 2012. He was in Akron last week attending the annual lecture in his name presented by the Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron, headed by David Baker, where so much of the record of psychology is kept for scholars, from this country and around the globe, to use.
The lecturer on Monday evening was Andrew Winston of the University of Guelph in Ontario. He talked about how psychologists were slow to take up the Holocaust in the decade following World War II. Part of the reluctance involved a preference for laboratory work, or tests, a greater appearance of objectivity and the scientific. Yet what was available to weigh were the personal accounts of survivors about the horror.
Benjamin and Crouse found something similar in the wake of the Brown decision. While Kenneth Clark received warm congratulations from close colleagues, the American Psychological Association offered no formal or official recognition of the achievement. There were no congratulatory letters or commendations from its board or executive secretary, or much coverage in its journal.
Around that time, Clark actually received a letter from the association about his dues in arrears.
What explains the lack of response? One temptation is to apply today’s standards, Clark instantly feted on the many media platforms. Yet, as Benjamin and Crouse show, the court ruling rated as big news. Time called the decision a “timely reassertion of the basic American principle that ‘all men are created equal.’ ” Legal scholars recognized its importance and impact. So did African Americans.
Benjamin and Crouse recall the prevalence of racially segregated schools, in some 20 states, plus Washington, D.C. They note the many other places of segregation, including churches, buses, restaurants, theaters, rest rooms and drinking fountains. No surprise then racism surfaced in psychology, no less part of the culture.
Racial divisions within psychology were apparent in the lower court cases leading to the Brown decision. Prominent psychologists testified as expert witnesses for the state. One, a former president of the American Psychological Association, championed segregation. Benjamin and Crouse cite his description of Clark as a student at Columbia: “none too bright … he was about a C student, but he’d rank pretty high as a Negro.”
Add the element of McCarthyism. The FBI had opened a file on a related organization, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, because of its supposed leftist agenda. All of it shapes a reluctance to take a public stand, even as critics attacked the role of psychology in the ruling.
According to Benjamin and Crouse, Clark traveled from jubilation to disappointment at the slow pace of racial progress, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act coming a decade later. The trajectory of his own relationship with the American Psychological Association is telling. By 1970, he was the president, the first black to hold the position. In 1994, four decades after the Brown ruling, he was recognized for his “outstanding lifetime contribution” to psychology.
Clearly, the country is in a better place than 60 years ago. Yet racism is stubborn. It persists, evident, for instance, in communities twisting election laws, as tracked by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a dissenting opinion last summer, or in the segregated housing of cities.
A few years ago, a young filmmaker re-conducted the doll test of the Clarks in her brief documentary, A Girl Like Me. Watch it, and you find a disturbing echo of the insight psychology brought to our understanding of racial inequality.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.