An American psychologist who studied the psychological effects of racial segregation.
Many psychologists have made history within their profession; few, however, have had an impact on the laws of a nation. Such was the case with Kenneth Bancroft Clark, whose work was cited by the Supreme Court in its historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregation in schools. In the 1954 case, the Court referred to a 1950 paper by Clark and described him as a “modern authority” on the psychological effects of segregation.
Clark was born on July 24, 1914, in the Panama Canal Zone. His father, Arthur Bancroft Clark, had come from the West Indies and worked as a cargo superintendent for the United Fruit Company, a major employer in Central America at that time. Clark's mother, Miriam Hanson Clark, was from Jamaica, and she and his father disagreed over their children's upbringing. Miriam wanted to move the family to the United States where Kenneth and his younger sister Beulah would have greater educational and career opportunities than they would have in Panama. But their father refused to go with them. He had a good position at United Fruit, and under the harsh racism and segregation that prevailed even in the northern United States at that time, as a person of color, he did not believe he could obtain a similar job in the United States. Therefore, Miriam and her two children boarded a boat for New York, leaving the children's father behind.
In New York City, Miriam got a job as a seamstress in the New York garment district, and the family settled in Harlem. At that time, Harlem was a mixedrace community, and besides other black families, the Clarks had Irish and Jewish neighbors. This experience undoubtedly had an effect on Clark's later commitment to integrated education. In school, he told the New Yorker magazine in 1982, all students were expected to excel, regardless of skin color: “When I went to the board in Mr. Ruprecht's algebra class,” he recalled, “I had to do those equations, and if I wasn't able to do them, he wanted to find out why. He didn't expect any less of me because I was black.”
In spite of having this positive educational environment, Clark found many people had low expectations for black students. For example, when Clark finished junior high and had to choose a high school, counselors urged him to enroll in a vocational school. Although Clark had a strong academic record, the assumption was that given he was black, he could only gain employment in a limited range of jobs, all of which involved working with his hands. That, at least, was the logic of the time, and to many people, it would have made sense, but not to Miriam Clark. When her son told her what the school counselor had suggested, she went to the counselor's office and informed the counselor that she had not struggled to bring her family from Panama so that her son could become a factory worker.
She enrolled Kenneth in George Washington High School, an academic school where he performed well in all subjects. He was particularly interested in economics and began to consider becoming an economist, but when he earned an award for his outstanding performance in the class, the teacher refused to give it to him. This example of racial discrimination, one of Clark's first clear-cut experiences with it, had enormous impact on his life. Because of it, he decided not to study economics, and that decision may have led to his lifelong interest in the psychology of racism.
Clark had not yet decided to become a psychologist; in fact, when he entered Howard University in Washington, DC, in 1931, he planned to study medicine. But in his sophomore year, he took a psychology course taught by Professor Frances Sumner. Sumner's method of psychological study, Clark recalled in his 1982 New Yorker interview, offered “the promise of… systematic understanding of the complexities of human behavior and human interaction,” including insight into “the seemingly intractable nature of racism.” Intrigued, Clark switched his major to psychology. Another professor at Howard, Ralph Bunche, who would later gain fame as a diplomat and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, taught Clark in several political science courses.
After graduating from Howard in 1935, Clark went on to earn his M.S. in psychology the next year, and then he accepted a teaching position at Howard. Recognizing Clark's potential, Sumner encouraged Clark to obtain his doctorate at Columbia University, and as a result Clark returned to New York City and enrolled in the doctoral program at Columbia. On April 14, 1938, he married Mamie Phipps, a psychology student from Arkansas whom he had met at Howard. The couple had two children, Kate Miriam and Hilton. Clark was the first black doctoral candidate in Columbia's psychology program, and he earned his Ph.D. in 1940.
For a time, Clark taught at Hampton Institute in Virginia, an old and highly conservative black college. Clark strongly disagreed with the administration at Hampton and resigned after one semester. From 1941 to 1942, he worked for the federal government's Office of War Information, studying morale conditions of U.S. black population as the country entered World War II. In 1942, he accepted a position as instructor at City College of New York (CCNY), and in 1949 he advanced to assistant professor.
Clark and his mentor Bunche had worked together on research for renowned Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, another future Nobel laureate. Myrdal's study of conditions among African Americans in the United States was published in 1944 as An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.
The Clarks conducted such studies for some time. Between 1939 and 1950, they published five articles on the effect that segregated schooling had on kindergartners in Washington, DC. For the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth in 1950, Clark wrote an article that summed up his and Mamie's research, as well as the work of other social scientists who had studied the psychological effects of segregation.
Up to that time, the law regarding segregated schooling had been governed by the Supreme Court's separate-but-equal decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In that case, the Court held that separate schools for blacks and whites—as long as the schools were of equal quality—did not violate the concept of equal protection under the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In practice, schools for black children were separate but rarely equal. Furthermore, Clark's research had shown that even if they were equal in quality, the very fact of enforced separation created an inherent inequity.
When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to challenge institutionalized segregation in the nation's courts, the organization turned to Clark. In three of the four cases that led to the Supreme Court's review of the segregation issue, Clark testified as an expert witness. When the case went before the Supreme Court, the NAACP presented a special paper, prepared by Clark and others, called “The Effects of Segregation and the Consequences of Desegregation: A Social Science Statement.” It was the first time in U.S. legal history that a brief prepared by a social scientist, illustrating the human consequences of a law in terms of its social and psychological impact, had been presented before the Supreme Court.
In its ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that struck down institutionalized segregation, the Court cited Clark's work as evidence, which stated evidence for the conclusion that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
After the May 17, 1954, Supreme Court decision, Clark became a celebrity among social scientists. He was feted and honored at universities around the United States and bestowed with honorary degrees. For the next decade, Clark went from triumph to triumph. In 1960, CCNY made him a full professor, and he became the first African American awarded a permanent position at any of New York's city colleges. The next year, the NAACP gave him its Spingarn Award for his contributions to race relations. With the support of the federal government, in June 1962 Clark established Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU). With HARYOU, he planned to reorganize the schools of Harlem by integrating classes, enforcing higher standards on teachers, and involving members of the community—especially parents—in the education of its young people. It was to be the prototype for the sort of community-action programs that came into increasing prominence in the 1980s and 1990s.
HARYOU outlined these principles in a 620-page report, which took two years to prepare; unfortunately, it turned out that HARYOU never went beyond the document stage. Clark's dream for the organization never became a reality, and his opposition came not from white people but from a black politician. The federal government in May 1964 allocated $110 million for the program and arranged a merger of HARYOU with Associated Community Teams (ACT), a group in which Democratic congressman Adam Clayton Powell had a hand. Clark and Powell disagreed over who should lead the program, and when Clark accused Powell of trying to take it over for political purposes, Powell claimed that Clark was profiting financially from the program. In disgust, Clark resigned from the organization on July 31, 1964.
As a result of his disappointing experience, Clark wrote Dark Ghetto, which became the best known of his more than 16 books. In 1967, he formed the Metropolitan Applied Research Center (MARC) with a group of other social scientists. Three years later, in 1970, MARC attempted to implement a program similar to that of HARYOU, this time in Washington, DC. Yet again, power politics defeated Clark's dream. Teachers’ unions rejected Clark's attempts to hold educators to higher standards, and the city school board chairman disagreed with Clark's central idea that black children should be expected to do as well in school as their white counterparts. Adding to these difficulties, in the late 1960s, Clark was scorned by black militants who rejected his integrationist approach.
Just as the decade leading up to the HARYOU debacle had been characterized by triumphs, the decade that followed had proven to be one of disappointments. In 1975, Clark retired from teaching and with his wife and children founded Clark, Phipps, Clark & Harris, a consulting firm that assisted corporations such as AT&T in setting up affirmative action programs. Clark continued with this work after his wife and business partner, Mamie, died in 1983.
Meanwhile, the idealist who had dreamed of fully integrated schools watched with disappointment as society became more segregated. This time the segregation was not a matter of law, but of choice, and the growing gap between the performance of African American students and mainstream white students only threatened to increase the division. But Clark managed to retain his hope that society could make a change. He believed the key, was to teach genuine respect for humankind.
Clark died at the age of 90 in New York on May 1, 2005. Although he earned many honors, he was frustrated by the lack of progress in integrating schools and other institutions. In one of his last interviews, almost a decade before his death, he stated: “There's no question that there have been changes. They are not as deep as they appear to be.”
See also Prejudice and discrimination .
Donnor, James K., and Adrienne D. Dixson, eds. The Resegregation of Schools: Education and Race in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
Markowitz, Gerald, and David Rosner. Children, Race, and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark's Northside Center, Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Matlin, Daniel. One the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.
Clark, Kenneth B. “Unfinished Business: The Toll of Psychic Violence.” Newsweek (January 10, 1993): 38.
Clark, Kenneth B., and Mamie P. Clark. “Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children.” The Journal of Negro Education 19, no. 3 (1950): 341–50.
Hughes, Michael, et al. “Racial Identity and Wellbeing Among African Americans.” Social Psychology Quarterly 78, no. 1 (2015): 25–48.
Marks, Amy K., et al. “9 Developmental Implications of Discrimination.” Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science 3, no. 9 (2015): 1–42.
Hentoff, Nat. “Profiles.” New Yorker (August 23, 1982): 37–40.
NCAAP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. “Brown at 60: The Doll Test.” http://www.naacpldf.org/brownat-60-the-doll-test (accessed June 19, 2015).
Severo, Richard. “Kenneth Clark, Who Fought Segregation, Dies.” http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/02/nyregion/kenneth-clark-whofought-segregation-dies.html (accessed June 19, 2015).
Washington University in St. Louis, University Libraries. “Interview with Dr. Kenneth Clark.” http://digital.wustl.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=eop;cc=eop;rgn=main;view=text;idno=cla0015.0289.020 (accessed June 19, 2015).