Friday, August 06, 2021

Clark (1917 - 1983) - Racism in education

Mamie Clark was the first black American to gain a PhD in experimental psychology. Her research into the effects of segregation by race in schools, using dolls, on self consciousness and attitudes on race were to have a profound influence on the legal progress in the civil Rights movemen and she continued to be an activist throughout her life.

Doll studies

Dolls had been used as an experimental technique before Clark used them  in her race segregation work. Clark and her husband worked with 300 children aged 3-7 asking them about four dolls, identical except for colour. They wanted to identify what perceptions and preferences that had of the dolls. They found positive perceptions and preferences for the white dolls. They inferred that segreation and discrimination had caused a self-perception of inferiority. Variations on the preference experiments included colouring in images of outlined figures, where the black children used yellow or white. 

Brown v Board of Education

Clark’s doll research was used as evidence in this landmark case, in 1954, in which the USSupreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. It was a key victory. The case started when Oliver Brown’s daughter, from Topeka Kansas, was refused a place at her nearest school and had to be bussed to a school at some distance from her home. Thirteen families in total filed a class action and evidence that included the doll studies from Kenneth and Mamie Clark to support the idea that black children were being damaged by being made to feel inferior through school segregation, were used to win the case.


Early work on race, as well as having a direct influence on civil rights legislation at the highest level, was to influence many other subsequent researchers. As segregation in schools and other places was abolished, attention shifted not just to the self-perception of black children towards race but, just as importantly, the racism that exists in others.


​​Clark, Kenneth; Phipps Clark, Mamie

 (1939). "The development of consciousness of self and the emergence of racial identification in Negro preschool children". Journal of Social Psychology. 10 (4): 591–599. 

Clark, Kenneth; Phipps Clark, Mamie (1940). "Skin color as a factor in racial identification of Negro preschool children". Journal of Social Psychology. 10: 159–169. 

Rutherford, A (2012). "Mamie Phipps Clark: Developmental psychologist, starting from strengths". Portraits of Pioneers in Developmental Psychology (In Wade E. Pickren, Donald A. Dewsbury & Michael Wertheimer): 261–275.

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