Kenneth Clark, 90; His Studies Influenced Ban on Segregation

Times Staff Writer

Social psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, whose studies showing the damaging effects of racism on the self-image of black children played a crucial role in the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed school segregation, has died. He was 90.

Clark died Sunday at his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., after a long battle with cancer.

The first African American to earn a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University, Clark, in collaboration with his wife, Mamie, conducted studies during the 1930s and 1940s that examined the psychological effects of skin color on young black students in Washington, D.C.

A paper he wrote on their research -- especially a test that asked black youngsters to make judgments on black and white dolls -- was prominently cited by the U.S. Supreme Court justices in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1954 that rendered “separate but equal,” the legal doctrine underlying school segregation, unconstitutional.


“His work was really very important to us and very essential to the victory,” said Judge Robert Carter, a senior federal judge in New York who 51 years ago helped mount the case as an attorney for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

“He worked tirelessly with us ... showing the psychological damage that discrimination did,” Carter said Monday by phone from New York. “He was a real American icon, a very wise man.”

After the NAACP victory in the case, Clark was the most eminent black social scientist in the country. He became the first black full professor in the City College of New York, where he taught for 30 years, and wrote “Dark Ghetto” (1965), a classic of sociology that became popular among black nationalists because it compared the situation of black Americans to that of colonized people.

Born in 1914 in what was then the Panama Canal Zone, Clark was raised in Harlem, where he moved as a child due to his mother’s insistence that the United States would offer him greater educational opportunity. His father, a cargo superintendent for United Fruit Co., stayed in Panama.


Clark’s mother, a seamstress, was a stubborn advocate for his educational advancement.

When a school counselor suggested that he enter a vocational school, she stormed into the school and told the advisor that she did not uproot her son from Panama to raise a factory worker.

Clark wound up at George Washington High School, an academic school in upper Manhattan. He entered Howard University in 1935, where his professors included leading black intellectuals such as philosopher Alain Leroy Locke and political scientist Ralph Bunche, the future Nobel laureate.

At Howard he had intended to major in economics but switched fields after taking a psychology class that showed him a new way of understanding “the seemingly intractable nature of racism.” At the university he also met his future wife, Mamie Phipps, a mathematics major who, at Clark’s urging, shifted to psychology.


For her fieldwork she began to study the effects of racial identity on the self-esteem of black schoolchildren in Washington. Clark was fascinated by her research and joined in. By 1939 they were publishing their work in respected journals. In 1940, Clark, who had moved with his wife to New York, earned his doctorate. By then he was working as a research associate with Bunche and Gunnar Myrdal on the classic Carnegie study on race relations, which was published in 1944 as “An American Dilemma.”

With his wife, Clark continued the investigations into the effects of discrimination on black schoolchildren. One of their major tools was a test that involved showing the children four dolls that were identical in every respect except skin color. Two of the dolls were white; two were painted brown. After determining at the outset that the children correctly identified which doll was white and which represented a black person, the Clarks gave several instructions, including requests that the children hand over the doll they “like best,” “like to play with” and is a “nice color.” Other questions were variations on which doll “looks bad.”

They tested children in Philadelphia, Boston, Worcester, Mass., and several cities in Arkansas and found that the black children, even those as young as 3, clearly favored the white dolls and rejected the brown ones.

“We were really disturbed by our findings, and we sat on them for a number of years,” Clark told Richard Kluger in the 1975 book “Simple Justice,” a history of the Brown vs. Board of Education case.


Clark said he not only was surprised by the degree of self-rejection black youngsters exhibited but also deeply moved. “Some of these children, particularly in the North, were reduced to crying when presented with the dolls and asked to identify with them,” he told Kluger. “They looked at me as if I were the devil for putting them in this predicament. Let me tell you, it was a traumatic experience for me as well.”

Carter, the NAACP lawyer, had never heard of Clark until he decided that the anti-segregation case might turn as much on evidence of psychological damage as on educational inequity. After reading a paper Clark wrote for a 1950 White House conference on youth that summarized the doll test findings, he enlisted Clark’s help to prepare for Briggs vs. Elliott, a case that alleged school inequality in Clarendon County, S.C., and one of several that led to the Supreme Court battle in 1954. Clark gave the doll tests to black children in Clarendon County and became an expert witness in the trial, testifying that segregation had “detrimental effects on the personality development of the Negro child.”

Some within the NAACP were skeptical of Clark’s doll tests, but Carter persuaded Thurgood Marshall, the rights group’s lead attorney, to consider them. Marshall decided that the doll tests represented “a promising way of showing injury to these segregated youngsters” and that such evidence should go on the court record.

The justices wound up citing Clark’s work in what became known as Footnote 11.


Clark’s role was pivotal “because he demonstrated the pain and suffering, the mental anguish, of black kids,” Kluger said from his Berkeley home Monday.

“His job was to take little kids and show that once they were separated [from white schoolchildren] the damage could never be undone, just as [Chief Justice Earl] Warren later said in the case. He was the one who wrote the opinion and gave Clark’s studies the first position in that famous footnote.”

Like other players in that historic moment, Clark entered the next period brimming with optimism that segregation would disappear within a matter of years. But the next decades would prove a great disappointment.

In 1962 he took on the huge task of reorganizing Harlem’s public schools and helped produce a 600-page report that urged integration and other major reforms. Few of his ideas were implemented. He had a similar experience in the early 1970s when he was asked to tackle the Washington, D.C., school system; his proposals were vetoed by the superintendent and the teachers union.


In 1975 he retired from City College and formed a consulting group with his wife and children called Clark, Phipps, Clark & Harris, which advised corporations on minority hiring.

His wife died in 1983. He is survived by a daughter, Kate C. Harris, and a son, Hilton.

By the 1980s his optimism about race relations in America had given way to a darker view. Although he continued to shun black separatism, the man once dubbed “the incorrigible integrationist” began to talk of his life as a lost cause.

He said he had underestimated the intractability of racism in the North. And in 1990 he was dismayed to learn that his old high school had de facto segregation and ranked as one of the state’s worst.


“I look back and I shudder and say, ‘Oh, God, you really were as naive as some people said you were,” Clark told the Washington Post in 1990. “My life has been a series of glorious defeats.”