The Clarks’ Contributions

Mamie Phipps Clark (PhD, Columbia, 1944) came to psychology after an initial interest in pursuing a mathematics degree at Howard University. She met Kenneth Bancroft Clark when both were students at Howard, and he persuaded her to change her major to psychology (Guthrie. 1990). Both she and Kenneth earned their bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Howard before moving on to Columbia University. (Kenneth, a few years ahead of Mamie, earned his doctorate at Columbia in 1940.) It was at Howard that Mamie Phipps, having secretly married Kenneth in 1937, began her work on racial identification in children. This work became a joint effort with Kenneth once she moved to New York. In their work with black children in both northern and southern U.S. settings, the Clarks found evidence that segregation inflicted psychological damage on the children (Phillips, 2000). Kenneth Clark later reported that the work had been terribly disturbing to both of them and they had great reservations about pursuing it. However, with the encouragement of the NAACP Legal Defense fund, Kenneth agreed to use the results of their studies in the Fund’s court challenges to school segregation (Jackson, 2001).

It was this work along with other social science research on the effects of racial segregation and discrimination that was considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in their landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, when the Court ruled in 1954 that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional (Pickren, 2004a). It was the first time that psychological research had been used by the Court in making their decision. Not unusual for the time, the predominantly white APA made no mention of it in any of their fora (Benjamin & Crouse, 2002). The decision and its defiance by school boards in both the North and the South were critical turning points in U.S. history. As it fit within the larger civil rights movement, the work of Kenneth and Mamie Clark that was used by the Court became one of the most important applications of psychology to the cause of social justice.

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But the work of the Clarks was much more diverse than the “doll studies” that were part of the evidence presented to the Court. Because they both wanted to make a difference in the lives of children and families, the Clarks, with their own money, started the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem in 1946. It was, for Kenneth, the “convergence of academic life and social policy” (as cited in Nyman, 1976, p. 111). He was the research director at the center from 1946 to 1952. For Mamie, it was a way for her to use her training, expertise, and sense of social justice to “give children security” (Lal, 2002).

The Clarks faced many challenges at the Northside Center (Markowitz & Rosner, 2000). For example, the Clarks discovered that the New York Board of Education had policies that facilitated the easy labeling of minority or immigrant children as mentally retarded or developmentally delayed and then shuffled them off to special classes. This has been a problem for well over a century in the U.S., and it continues today. This issue became one that the Clarks and their staff at Northside dealt with repeatedly.

Mamie, as director, soon discovered that focusing solely on the problems of individuals and their families was inadequate. There were structural problems—housing, organization of work, schools, social and educational poli­cies—that could not be ignored if these children were to be helped. Kenneth Clark held strong views about the need to address the larger social structure, as he became well aware from his research that the provision of clinical services alone would not make an enduring difference in the health of the community (Nyman, 1976). The need to address the larger social problems and pathologies in the social system was at the crux of what the Clarks wanted to do.

In 1962, Kenneth became the director of the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency program in Harlem, the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited. Initially, this effort to revive Harlem as a place of opportunity was successful. Kenneth and his staff set out to make a structural difference and improve individual lives. Through a jobs program for youth and community projects to freshen up neighborhoods and improve services, it seemed like there was hope when communities took action collectively.

However, other black leaders, mainly Adam Clayton Powell, then the representative to the U.S. Congress for that district, betrayed Clark over money. Clark became disillusioned about the possibility of real change. In his disillusionment he wrote Dark Ghetto (1965). It reflected his despair over structural and individual racism.

In 1968, Kenneth Clark was asked by the leaders of APA to allow his name to be placed on the ballot for the presidency of APA. The association was, at this time, struggling with how to respond to the massive social changes and social problems then facing the nation and shaking up APA. The new, militant Association of Black Psychologists had laid challenges of racism and irrelevance at APA’s door, and APA was not sure how to respond (Pickren, 2004b).

Clark became APA president-elect in 1969 and served his term as president from September 1970 through August 1971. Among his enduring contributions were his actions to establish internal governance structures within APA to deal with issues of social justice and public interest. The APA membership approved the creation of the Board for Social and Ethical Responsibility in Psychology (BSERP). This board, which no longer exists, inaugurated a sea change in APA’s approach to psychology, making APA much more receptive to issues of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability through such structures as the Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs and the current Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest (Pickren & Tomes, 2002).