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, jim-crowed, 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."

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