Kenneth Bancroft Clark was one of the most influential psychologists and social activists of his generation. Born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1914, Clark moved with his family to Harlem, New York, when he was 4 years old. After graduating from Washington High School in New York City, he enrolled in Howard University, a prominent historically Black university in Washington, D.C. It was at Howard that Clark would work with African American scholars like E. Franklin Frazier and Francis Cecil Sumner, whose ideas about racism and integration would influence his thoughts throughout his career. From Howard, he returned to New York to attend Columbia University. He would become the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology in the school’s history. In 1938, he married Mamie Phipps (Clark), an influential psychologist in her own right. The two had met at Howard and continued their relationship when Mamie came to New York to study psychology at Columbia. Clark would live and work in Harlem for much of the remainder of his life.
Clark was perhaps best known for his contribution to the 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the matter of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. His research was an integral part of the case challenging the legality of segregated schools. He worked closely with his wife, Mamie, to use their research to change the way that race and prejudice are viewed in America. Over the course of his career, he would help found a community health center, chair several educational research projects, and hold several key positions within the fields of psychology and education (including the presidency of the American Psychology Association) and a seat on the New York State Board of Regents. Clark passed away in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, in 2005.
Clark’s early work focused on racial identity development in African American children. In a set of experiments known as the doll studies, African American children were presented with dolls that were identical in every way except for skin color. Some of the dolls were brown to represent African American children, and some were pinkish to represent White children.
Clark and the research team asked participants a series of questions about the dolls, such as “Which one is you?” and “Give me the doll that you like the best.” The results from this series of experiments indicated that even as young as age 3, a majority of African American children were aware of the classifications of White and African American. The results also revealed that although many children identified themselves with the African American doll, a large proportion expressed a preference for the white dolls and a rejection of the brown dolls. In the eyes of many African American children, white dolls were associated with goodness and intelligence, whereas brown dolls were associated with ignorance and other negative characteristics.
Clark found these results particularly disturbing. The views of the children in the study highlighted the profound psychological conflict facing African American children in the United States at that time. Clark argued that as African American children grew, the already difficult process of identity development was further complicated for them by the cultural definitions of race. The children knew that they were African American and were also aware of the insulting value that culture had placed on this group.
Clark became preoccupied with understanding what factors created the perception of African Americans as bad and Whites as good. He theorized that these ideas were the result of pervasive cultural prejudice. The way that African Americans were treated in virtually every sphere of American life taught children that African Americans were inferior to Whites. The effect of this universal devaluing of the African American race was to confuse and discourage African American children. It has been observed that although this line of research and thinking was relevant to the state of social science knowledge and the political climate of the time, this focus on the deleterious effects of racism and racial segregation contributed to a “deficits approach” to the study of ethnic identity that it would take another generation of social scientists to offset.
Clark felt strongly that the education system had a responsibility to protect children from the dangers of prejudice. He believed that it was a school’s legal and moral obligation to provide a safe learning environment in which all children could learn and develop. He criticized segregated schools because they failed to do this. In his research, he pointed out that almost universally, segregated schools for African Americans were aesthetically inferior and lacked the resources afforded to schools for Whites. Within the schools, the biased attitude of teachers and administrators also affected students. Clark cautioned that these repeated associations of African Americans with inferior status would lead to irreversible damage to children’s identity, self-esteem, and ability to function as productive members of society. He also asserted that the lessons of democracy and equality taught in schools could not be credibly proposed within a system that promoted the humiliation of a portion of its people. For African American children to have a fair educational opportunity, school segregation would have to be eliminated.
Clark continued to promote these ideas through research and activism. However, the culture of racism and prejudice in America at that time made it difficult for many to see his point of view. Despite this, he continued pressing the ideas of integration and fair educational opportunities for all students.
Perhaps no single effort illustrates Clark’s desire to see change in his community more than the founding of the Northside Center for Child Development in 1946. Recognizing the need for affordable psychological care for the children of Harlem, Clark and his wife, Mamie, used their own money to fund a community center offering these services in their neighborhood. Today, Northside is still functioning in Harlem. Though it has grown beyond its humble beginnings, it still operates under the Clarks’ original principles of community service and activist research.
Shortly after the founding of the Northside Center, Clark became involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) legal battle against segregation. As a result of the papers that he and Mamie published establishing the negative effects of prejudice, Clark had gained some notoriety as one of the leading psychologists in this area. The research provided a new kind of evidence that could be used to challenge the legality of segregation. Beginning in 1951 and for several years thereafter, Clark served as a social science consultant to the NAACP. He would eventually testify as an expert witness in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, which called for an end to school segregation. He explained the dangers of segregation and emphasized that thorough integration was the only way to offer African American children a fair education. His testimony was cited as crucial in the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn previous cases that had supported “separate but equal” educational facilities.
Though Kenneth was pleased that his and Mamie’s research had been used to effect legal change, he was troubled by the fact that schools remained illegally segregated even after the Brown verdict. While he and Mamie continued their research and their work at Northside, Kenneth pressed education officials at the local and national levels to make the changes that had been mandated by the court’s ruling. For the remainder of his career, he worked on various advisory boards and research councils pushing for this change. In 1962, Clark served as chair of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited. The organization’s overall goal was to explore the reasons for the high rates of juvenile delinquency in Harlem and to devise a plan of action to reduce the problems. A few years later, Kenneth and a group of colleagues formed the Metropolitan Applied Research Center. The group of individuals, which represented a variety of professions, met with the common goal “to serve as a catalyst for change and as an advocate for the poor and powerless in American cities.” Although Clark worked hard on these and many other projects, political opposition and feasibility concerns prevented many of the suggestions that he proposed from taking place as quickly as he would have liked.
Despite some setbacks, Clark remained active throughout his career. The same year that he began working with Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, he began his 20-year term with the New York Board of Regents. He continued to hold several professorships, publish scores of articles and books, serve as president of the American Psychological Association, and establish several research and advisory corporations in the areas of psychology, education, and economics. For him, social justice began with an educational experience for all children that allowed them to feel respectful of themselves and their status as human beings. He worked tirelessly in his com-munity, in the schools, and in the courts and government halls to ensure this environment of equality and respect for all children, always from his command of the knowledge and his commitment to social action.
- Cherry, F. (2004). Kenneth Clark and social psychology’s other history. In G. Philogene (Ed.), Racial identity in context: The legacy of Kenneth B. Clark (pp. 13-33). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Clark, K. (1955). Prejudice and your child. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Clark, K., & Clark, M. (1939). The development of consciousness of self and the emergence of racial identification in Negro preschool children. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 591-599.
- Clark, K., & Clark, M. (1940). Skin color as a factor in racial identification of Negro preschool children. Journal of Social Psychology, 11, 159-169.
- Clark, K., & MARC Staff. (1972). A possible reality: A design for the attainment of high academic achievement for inner-city students. New York: Emerson Hall.
- Markowitz, G., & Rosner, D. (2000). Children, race and power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s Northside Center. New York: Routledge.