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Bergner - | 299 Black Children White Preference ©2009 The...

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Unformatted text preview: | 299 Black Children, White Preference ©2009 The American Studies Association Black Children, White Preference: Brown v. Board, the Doll Tests, and the Politics of Self-Esteem Gwen Bergner T he landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education dealt a lethal blow to the “separate but equal” doctrine of segregation established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896; it did so largely on the grounds that segregation damages African American children’s self-es- teem. In the Court’s words, “to separate [children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” 1 Because of this psychological harm, the Court determined, African American children could never get an educa- tion equal to white children’s in a segregated school, no matter how good the physical facilities or curriculum. To support its finding of psychological damage, the Court cited in a footnote a number of social science works, most notably a report by psychologist Kenneth Clark that summarized the results of “racial preference” tests he and his wife, Mamie, had conducted to assess African American children’s racial identification. 2 In the most famous of these tests, the Clarks asked children to choose between brown and white dolls in response to a series of questions, including which doll was the good one and which the bad, which doll they wanted to play with and which looked most like him or her. 3 A majority of children identified a brown doll as looking like them, but chose a white doll to play with, as the nice one, and as the one with a nice color. The Clarks concluded that the children had internalized society’s racist messages and thus suffered from wounded self-esteem. Effec- tively legitimating the Clarks’ research, Brown established a discursive link between educational achievement and self-esteem for African Americans and spurred a veritable industry of racial preference testing that continues to this day. Social scientists have used racial preference tests to advocate policies on multiculturalism, self-segregation, affirmative action, juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, resegregation, and the racial achievement gap. 4 | 300 American Quarterly After Brown , the Clarks’ studies set the parameters for virtually all subse- quent research on racial identity, self-esteem, and child development 5 —even though they were discredited on methodological and statistical grounds in the late ’60s and ’70s. Moreover, subsequent research using direct tests of self- esteem, as opposed to projective racial preference tests, 6 showed that (1) racial preference, as measured by the doll and similar tests, bears no relationship to self-esteem; (2) African American children’s self-esteem is equal to or greater than that of white children; and (3) the persistent educational achievement...
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Bergner - | 299 Black Children White Preference ©2009 The...

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