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Kenneth Bancroft Clark

A world of opportunities in Harlem, Meetings with remarkable men—and a woman

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 the Supreme Court cited in its historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling. In the 1954 case, which overturned racial segregation in public schools, the Court referred to a 1950 paper by Clark, and described him as a "modern authority" on the psychological effects of segregation. His recognition by the highest court in the land made Clark an instant celebrity, and on the heels of this success, he set out to develop a prototype community action program for young people in Harlem in 1962. However, political workings brought an early end to his vision. Disillusioned by this experience, Clark penned the most well-known of his many books, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (1965), which would become an important text for sociologists studying inner-city life in America.

A world of opportunities in Harlem

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 in Panama. But the 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, he did not believe he could obtain a similar job in America. Therefore Miriam and her two children boarded a boat for New York harbor, 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 mixed community, and besides other black families, the Clarks found themselves living alongside 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 this positive educational environment, the rest of the world was filled with people who had low expectations for black students. Hence when Clark finished junior high and had to choose a high school, counselors urged him to enroll in a vocational school. In spite of his strong academic record, he was black, and therefore he could only hope to gain employment in a limited range of jobs, all of which involved working with one's hands. That, at least, was the logic, 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 him 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 had begun 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, Clark's first clearcut experience with it, would have enormous impact on his life. Because of it, he decided not to study economics, and it may have led to his lifelong interest in the psychology of racism.

Meetings with remarkable men—and a woman

Clark had not yet decided to become a psychologist; in fact, when he entered Washington, D.C.'s Howard University 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 who had an influence on Clark was Ralph Bunche. 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 in 1935, Clark went on to obtain his M.S. in psychology the next year, then accepted a teaching position at Howard. But Sumner, recognizing his great potential, encouraged him to obtain his doctorate at Columbia University. Therefore 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 would eventually have two children, Kate Miriam and Hilton. Clark, the first black doctoral candidate in Columbia's psychology program, earned his Ph.D. degree in 1940.

For a short period of time, Clark taught at Hampton Institute in Virginia, an old and highly conservative black college. But Clark had strong differences of opinion with the administration at Hampton, and resigned after one semester. From 1941 to 1942, Clark worked for the federal government's Office of War Information, studying morale conditions of America's black population as the country entered World War II. In 1942, he accepted a position as an instructor at City College of New York (CCNY), and in 1949 became an 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 would be published in 1944 as An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. But his work with Bunche and Myrdal would not prove to be the most significant collaboration of Clark's career; his most important partner was closer to home, in the person of his wife Mamie.

The rising young social scientist

In 1946, the Clarks established the Northside Testing and Consultation Center in Harlem. In time this would become the Northside Center for Child Development, and the name change reflected a shift of emphasis. In the course of their research and therapy for troubled black youngsters, the Clarks had discovered evidence that racism helped to create a pervasive negative self-image. For instance, when given a choice between a brown doll and a white one and told "Give me the doll that looks bad," black children would usually choose the brown doll; told to point out "the doll that is a nice color," they would select the white one.

The Clarks had been conducting such studies for some time. Between 1939 and 1950, they published five articles on the effect that segregated schooling had on kindergartners in Washington, D.C. For the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth in 1950, Clark wrote another 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 of the land regarding segregated schooling had been governed by the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In that case, the Court held that the establishment of 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, of course, schools for blacks were certainly 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 American 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 historic 1954 case which struck down institutionalized segregation, the Court cited Clark's work as valuable evidence. More important, it reiterated the theme he had presented as the evidence mounted from his studies: "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Highs and disappointment lows and hope

On the heels of the May 17, 1954, Supreme Court decision, Clark became a celebrity in the community of social scientists. He was feted and honored at universities around the country, bestowed with honorary degrees and described in glowing terms by his colleagues. A generation later, three young graduate students writing in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science would sum up the extent of his reputation: "We approached our telephone interview with Dr. Kenneth Clark with awe. After all, his contribution to U.S. history had enabled our own education to occur in an integrated society."

For the next decade, Clark went from triumph to triumph. In 1960, CCNY made him a full professor, and he thus 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, Clark in June 1962 established Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, or 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 which come into increasing prominence in the 1980s and 1990s.

HARYOU outlined these principles in a 620-page report, which took two years to prepare; unfortunately, as Clark would later say in his New Yorker profile, "As it turned out, all we did at HARYOU was to produce a document." Clark's dream for the organization would never become a reality, and his opposition came not from white racists 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 would become the most wellknown of his more than 16 books. In 1967 he formed the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, or MARC, with a group of other social scientists. Three years later, in 1970, MARC attempted to resurrect a program similar to that of HARYOU, this time in Washington, D.C. Yet again, however, 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. To add to his misfortunes, in the late 1960s, Clark was subjected to scorn 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, Inc., a consulting firm that assisted corporations such as AT&T in setting up affirmative action programs. Clark continued with this work after he lost his most important partner, Mamie, when she 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 black students and those in the mainstream only threatened to increase the division. But Clark managed to retain his hope that society could make a change. The key, as he wrote in Newsweek in 1993, was to teach genuine respect for humankind: "We have not yet made education a process whereby students are taught to respect the inalienable dignity of other human beings…. [But] by encouraging and rewarding empathetic behavior in all of our children…. [w]e will be helping them to understand the commonality of being human. We will be educating them."

See also Prejudice and discrimination

Judson Knight

Further Reading

Bigelow, Barbara Carlisle, ed. Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 5. Detroit: Gale, 1994, pp. 51-55.

Contemporary Authors, Volume 36. Detroit: Gale, 1978.

Guthrie, Robert V. Even the Rat Was White, Harper's (1976): 150-1

Hentoff, N. "Profiles," New Yorker, (August 23, 1982): 37-40.

Keppel, Ben. The Work of Democracy: Ralph Bunche, Kenneth B. Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Cultural Politics of Race. Harvard University Press, 1995.

Latting, Jean Kantambu et al., "Dr. Kenneth Bancroft Clark: A Biography," Journal of Applied Behavioral Sciences, (September 1991): 263-64.

"Light in the Ghetto," Newsweek, (May 31, 1965): 78.

Markowitz, Gerald and Rosner, David. Children, Race, and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark's Northside Center. University Press of Virginia, 1996.

McGuire, William and Wheeler, Leslie. American Social Leaders. ABC-Clio, 1993, pp. 99-100.

Sammons, Vivian Ovelton. Blacks in Science and Medicine. Hemisphere Publishing, 1990.

"10 Forces Behind U.S. Education," Scholastic Update, (February 3, 1984): 9.

Willie, C.V., "Five Black Scholars," Change, (September 1983): 27.

Young, Margaret. Black American Leaders. Watts, 1969, pp. 28-30.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists