Honoring Pioneers of Mental Health – Black History Month

To celebrate Black History Month, meet two incredible trailblazers whose contributions to the fields of psychology and mental health advanced the fortunes of the black community and society at large; they were instrumental in raising awareness of the pernicious effects of segregation and influenced the Supreme Court's decision.

Drs. Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark were a married couple of psychologists who studied the impact of racial discrimination on education. They were best known for their renowned doll experiments that highlighted the damaging effects of racism on the self-image of black children in segregated schools. The Clarks' research earned them recognition as expert witnesses in the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education – the landmark 1954 case that eventually overturned “separate-but-equal” segregation in the United States.

The 1947 ‘Doll Test’ study to make the case against segregation

In an effort to study the psychological impact of segregation on African American children and to determine the extent to which their self-esteem is influenced by their color, their own race, or their status, the Clarks conducted the Doll Test.

Their experiment involved 4 identical diapered dolls, except for color: 2 of the dolls had brown skin and black hair and 2 of the dolls had white skin and yellow hair, to test children’s racial perceptions.

Two hundred black children, ages 3 to 7, who primarily attended segregated schools, were asked to identify both the race of the dolls and the color of the doll they preferred.

The children were asked to identify the dolls in several ways: the one they wanted to play with, the one that looked “white”, “colored” or “Negro”, the one that was “good” or “bad”. Finally, they were asked to identify the doll that looked most like them.

The majority of the children preferred the white doll to the African American one and assigned positive characteristics to the white doll.  When asked to identify which doll looked like them some of the children would cry and run out of the room.

The Clarks found that African American children’s preference for white dolls reflected psychological damage exacerbated by segregation. Thus, "prejudice, discrimination, and segregation" had created a feeling of inferiority in African American children and undermined their self-esteem for life – damage that started long before the children could develop any sense on race.

The Supreme Court cited Clark’s 1950 paper as the basis for its ruling in 1954

"Separating African American children from other children of similar age and qualifications solely on the basis of their race generates a sense of inferiority as to their status in the community, which may affect their hearts and minds in ways that are unlikely to ever be repaired," was the passage quoted by Chief Justice Earl Warren; it was used to motivate the Supreme Court's ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education case mandating school integration nationwide.

Final thoughts

Today, integration is the law of the land. However, the racial biases that the Clarks documented in the 1930s and 1940s still exist.

An updated version of the study was commissioned by CNN in 2010, using cartoon depictions of children and a color bar showing a range of skin tones – and the results were surprisingly similar to those obtained by the Clarks. Specifically, white children had an overwhelmingly white bias and black children also had a white bias. Margaret Spencer, who conceived the study in 2010 and is a prominent child psychologist at the University of Chicago, concluded: "We still live in a society where dark things are devalued, and white things are valued."

This finding came nearly 60 years after American schools were desegregated by the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and more than a year after the country’s first black president. The vestiges of "Jim Crow" segregation may no longer exist in the United States, but racial prejudice is still alive, and will require additional time and effort to be permanently eradicated.

Did you read those already ?

Discover more posts in

American Culture

Sign up for our newsletter

And never miss our latest articles

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.