Kenneth Clark and Brown v. Board of Education

The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Kenneth B. Clark
Title: Kenneth Clark and Brown v. Board of Education
VTR: 10/29/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. In August 1982, Nat Hentoff wrote what is, in my estimation, the most perceptive, the most telling and perhaps the most disturbing New Yorker profile that has ever been published.

Let me read its opening paragraph. “On May 28, 1954, Dr. Kenneth Bancroft Clark, a 39 year old Associate Professor of Psychology at City College in New York, read out a brief statement for the press on the meaning of a unanimous Supreme Court decision … Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka … which had been handed down 11 days earlier. Clark himself had been mentioned in the decision, in a footnote that cited him as one representative of modern authority, supporting the Court’s conclusion that segregation in the public schools, generates in Negro children a feeling of inferiority that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Clark was somewhat disappointed that the Court in citing his research, had ignored two other points he had made. That racism was as profoundly American as the Declaration of Independence and that school segregation twisted the personality development of whites as well as Negro children.

Still elated by the decision he predicted in his statement, that “as a result of Brown versus Board of Education, white youngsters could now look to a future in which they will not have to spend so much valuable energy apologizing for injustices which they did not invent, but for which they must share the responsibility.”

“And young Negroes freed of the stigma of segregation could now be proud of the fact that they are Americans.”

Well, I’ve asked Dr. Clark to join me here today on The Open Mind. And Dr. Kenneth Clark I’d like to ask you whether you’re particularly proud of your power as a prophet as represented by that statement.

CLARK: Well that’s a hard question, Dick. I obviously was not a particularly accurate prophet.

HEFFNER: What happened?

CLARK: What happened? Well, looking back over these years since 1954, it seems to me very … too clear, disturbingly clear that racism is more deeply embedded in the American psyche, the American social system than we have believed.

The fact is that the American people, probably going all the way back to the beginning of slavery in the New World, and in spite of the abolitionists; in spite of the Judaic Christian, you know, efforts; in spite of the Declaration of Independence, that still there’s something … and it’s not peculiar to Americans … there is something about the human personality that apparently requires other human beings to stigmatize, other human beings to defame and apparently this is something that is not easily controlled.

HEFFNER: Do you think that if the case Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka were to go before the present Supreme Court of the United States, it would come out with a unanimous decision as in the Warren court?

CLARK: No, and again, you’ve already pointed out that I’m not particularly good as a prophet. No I think that there … the thing about Brown … the Brown decision … was that it was free of equivocation. Chief Justice Warren and his colleagues faced that issue and stated in clear, direct language that laymen can understand the nature of the problem.

And I think that disturbed a number of lawyers because it was not full of jargon. I … my personal belief is that the present Court would probably come out with pretty much the same conclusion, however, maybe more equivocation and with some dissent.

Now I say that with the qualification that you pointed out that Kenneth Clark might be deeply disturbed and concerned about what racism is doing to the foundations of American society and even more important what racism does to human beings.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting to me to note that you spoke a moment ago about a, a different insight into the nature of human personality …

CLARK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … derived from perhaps the history of these nearly 30 years since Brown.

CLARK: Yes, and other … if you look at human history you, you do see patterns of irrational, non-rational cruelties, you know, which is the basis of wars, pogroms. Now, of course, if you … I would not say that American racism should be equated with some of the most extreme forms of collective human cruelty. In fact American racism is, I think, among the more subtle, psychological forms.

Even today if you compare American racism with South African racism, I think you’d have to … you’d have to concede that there’s something about the attempt on the part of Americans since the founding of this country to control the manifestations of its inter-group cruelties. You see little of that in South Africa.

And we have a Constitution; we have courts that are free from the idiotic bigotries of the government as you see in South Africa.

HEFFNER: But you say one thing … we tend to try to control the manifestations …

CLARK: Yes, Americans do …

HEFFNER: … of those attitudes.

CLARK: Americans … even I as a Black American would have to concede that from the very beginning, from slavery, there was something about the Judaic Christian aspect of the American society that was saying, “Look, you can’t do this.”

On the other hand, there was something very pragmatic about America, which said, “No, we’re going to do that, you know.” You, you have what I call the moral schizophrenia, that’s a very important part of the reality of the American social system, which differentiates it, for example, from Nazism.

HEFFNER: Again, you talk about “moral schizophrenia”. Any cure for that disease, Dr. Clark?

CLARK: Oh, I have to go back to your first comment about me as a prophet …

HEFFNER: As a prophet.

CLARK: (Laughter) Yeah. Oh …

HEFFNER: And yet, forget … forget the nasty thing I said …

CLARK: No, it wasn’t nasty … it was very clear. Very real.

HEFFNER: Well, I want to take it back because I want you to tell me what you think can be done and I don’t want to give you the device of “well, I’m not a good prophet.”

CLARK: Well, actually, what we have to do is to try to control it. There’s no question in my mind, that we cannot permit serious regressions to earlier forms of bigotry and racism and cruelty in our society … we can’t permit under the guise of conservatism, you know, under the guise of taking government out of … off the backs of people … in removing regulations. We can’t use those quote “rationalizations”, those code words to permit this very insidious thing to manifest its more serious symptoms.

So far we’re kind of holding our own, except if you look within the last two or three years, you see subtle, smiling forms of racism which I say are attempting to have some functional repeal of Brown. You know tuition tax credits for separate, segregated schools.

One of the things that Americans, who are concerned with … and I will repeat … controlling the more intolerable aspects of its racism must constantly be on guard against these subtle, insidious forms of racism that becomes policy, that removes the government … See, one of the most important things, I think, Dick about the Brown decision and its aftermaths in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and all of the other … the Voting Rights Act of ‘65 was that it made the power of government a positive factor in controlling racism.

You remove government from that positive role of restraining the manifestations of racism and we are in serious trouble. If government becomes, you know, politically pragmatic and starts pandering to racism and re-enforcing the racism that’s there, then you’re in trouble and not … and I’d just like to add … not just minorities, not just Blacks … one of the wonderful things about the Civil Rights Movement is that it strengthened democracy for all Americans.

HEFFNER: I, after the Brown decision, revised my Documentary History of the United States … included the major opinion … the opinion … which was unanimous …and referred, as an historian to this glorious act to an expression of the best in the American tradition …

CLARK: Sure.

HEFFNER: … in the American heritage.

CLARK: And that’s true.

HEFFNER: Yes, but there were so many of us who thought that that was it at that time. And I think that there are so many Americans who want to resist the notion that we are a people tainted, to a considerable extent, with racist thoughts. I think until you recognize that, as you do …

CLARK: Most do.

HEFFNER: … then there’s nothing that you can do about it.

CLARK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: But when you set about doing it, don’t you have to set aside, too, some of our democratic instincts, some of the notion that the will of the people is the will of God.

You used the word before … pandering … well there are those who would pander to what … pander to what they claim is majority opinion and that majority opinion is racist. Where do you come out at that? Reject the opinions of the majority … seems to be what you’re saying.

CLARK: Well, I … I don’t think that’s what I’m saying. I think what I’m trying to say is that my understanding of the value of democracy is that it … and certainly the American democratic system sought from the very beginning to do this … developing methods and techniques and governmental structures and institutions to keep the society from wallowing in the limitations of a majority. And to protect … to protect individuals from various forms of power and turn a … whether it be the minority power of government … you know a dictator … or the majority of the people.

That’s when I was in high school, that’s one of the things that fascinated me about American democracy, it was not literalistic democracy in the sense where relationships among people would be established by referendum, but you look at the power of the Supreme Court … the Supreme Court is not a majority … there’s only nine individuals …

HEFFNER: You see …

CLARK: … and they have a responsibility, however, to protect even … protect individuals in the society from the Congress or from the President.

HEFFNER: The “last great hope of mankind” will not be fully realized in terms of counting noses and particularly if those noses tend to be racist.

CLARK: Well, limit it.

HEFFNER: Why do you say, “limit it?”

CLARK: Well, I …

HEFFNER: You think to be racist is to be limited?

CLARK: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think that racism is a manifestation of a limited form of ego-centricity. It’s a manifestation of a lack of perspective, a lack of breathe and understanding of the commonality of mankind.


CLARK: Or I would say, lack of understanding of the limitations of man, the tenuousness of man, the fact that, you know, if you look at the life span of any one human being it is an extremely limited period of time. And to me racism is an attempt to deny the fact that human beings are … have common qualities and characteristics and they’re limited in their life span.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but Ken, let’s go back to that old song, “you have to be taught to hate.”

CLARK: Yeah.

HEFFNER: There seems to me to be some tension between your notion that being racist is being limited. And your notion that this people basically is racist …

CLARK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … in its heritage. We don’t have to be taught to hate, you earlier … a few minutes ago, seemed to be saying that you find something indigenous in human personality … doesn’t have to be taught to hate. That hates, that needs to hate, that needs to have something underneath it, on a bottom rung of a ladder … to hate, to demean.

If that’s the case, isn’t this a matter essentially of control rather than education?

CLARK: Well …

HEFFNER: Amelioration …

CLARK: … I, I think that control and education are pretty synonymous in many ways. Yes, the potential …

HEFFNER: How do you educate …

CLARK: … the potential for cruelty, the potential for disparagement and hatred is there. The potential for love is also there. Potential for understanding. The potential for recognizing, as I said, the commonality of … the common frailties … you know, the common positive potentials also there.

Now taught. You can be taught to have either of those predominate. I, I believe … and maybe there are some exceptions. There maybe some individuals with some kind of congenital brain injury limitations … may not ever be able to be taught to be compassionate, any more than they can be taught some cognitive things.

But given the average, normal human being, the educational system, the socialization system, the society is what determines which of those two sets of seemingly conflicting forces will be dominate.

Let me give you an example. When I saw the television program that showed these poor white children in South Boston with their faces contorted with hate, you know, totally irrational. I don’t think those youngsters were born that way. I, I know they weren’t. They were let down, their parents, the adults, the society, the church that was responsible for bringing out humanity in them, did not. It left them sort of morally animalistic.

And I wish that the Supreme Court had said in its Brown decision, “Look you can’t do this to white children. You can’t dehumanize white children by having them going around contorted with hate and dehumanized by hate.”

HEFFNER: I, I was so taken, in the Nat Hentoff profile by a number of the things that you and Mrs. Clark had said, “All this talk, all these years and still the percentage of Black children going to segregated and inferior schools in the north is greater now than it was at the time of Brown.”

Then in your Bicentennial Lecture, “Clark turned to the distinction between the appearance and substance. After all the marches demonstrations and new laws, the majority of Blacks are still to be found in menial positions, are under employed or unemployed, most Black children … 22 years then after the Brown decision … are still required by various evasive devices to attend racially segregated and inferior schools.”

And then, most telling of all. Talking about Mamie Clark … “she paused and her voice was even softer when she resumed, you know things are worse than they were when we started Northside. They really are worse. More people are without hope now, but 30 years ago there was hope; people got excited when things happened to their children, they tried harder to change things for their children and they tried harder still in the 1960s. But now, well now they know that nothing has changed. I’m depressed about it. So is Kenneth. We talk about it all the time, she laughed, we say the same things over and over. I don’t know what the answer is.”

CLARK: Nor do I.

HEFFNER: Well, what do we do then?

CLARK: Well, I just keep thinking that if there was some way of breaking through to white middle America, white blue collar America and say, “Look, do not dehumanize your children.”

See maybe one of the mistakes that we made in the Civil Rights struggle, or certainly in the work that Mamie and I were doing and the research that we were doing, we were concentrating on what was happening to Black children; what was damaging them, you know, what was happening in terms of their lack of self esteem.

I think that if we were to start over again, we would probably be more integrationist. We would study more precisely what is happening and what has happened to white children in a racist society. What happens to a child when he or she is required to listen in school or in church to moral and ethical preachments, you know, about equality of man, etc. and then have the same people, the same parents, the same priest or Rabbi say to them, “Don’t pay very much attention to that in the real life.”

I mean what does that child think about the value of ethical and moral preachments when they are being required to violate them. There’s nothing more clearly violative of the American democratic system and preachments and ideals than racially segregated institution and particularly racially segregated because a school itself is its own violation, you know. The school itself is a monument to the fact that you can’t believe.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by that?

CLARK: Well, what are our children supposed to learn in school about our system, the government … that it’s democratic, right?


CLARK: That there’s equality and they listen and read the Declaration of Independence; I thought it was beautiful. Until I started to see what it really meant, until I started to realize that Jefferson, himself, was suffering from this moral schizophrenia and in spite of his beautiful prose, was unable to free his own slaves.

Well, children today in the latter part of this century, are indoctrinated with schizophrenia in our society, you know. And, by the way, they know it. White and Black children know early and my feeling is that a lot of the rebellion against the so-called moral, social system of our society stems from the reality of the inconsistencies of the society. And race and racism versus egalitarianism in the key conflict of this society.

HEFFNER: Certainly that was true in the sixties.

CLARK: I think it’s true now. I think, and as Mamie says it’s, it’s worse because it’s not quiet, it’s now rationalized.

HEFFNER: You know you say it’s “not quiet” and this wonderful … in, in Hentoff’s wonderful profile of you there is this section in which you talk about the fact that now there are not quite so many mothers, not quite so many surrogate parents to take care of their children to insist that they be better taken care of our in our schools. That seemed to me to be the frightening thing. That seemed to extend the likelihood ….


HEFFNER: … that we don’t break out of this, this cycle.

CLARK: No, it’s not going to be easy. I don’t think it was easy for us to get to the moon, either. And we got to the moon because there was such a deep commitment on the part of Kennedy to get there. Until you get that kind of full commitment to free American children, white as well as Black from this horrible psychological personal burden, it’s moral conflict, you’re not going to do it.

HEFFNER: You know, I was going to say in the most banal fashion possible, possible that you, after all, are an optimist still. But, you know, mostly I want to ask the question whether the assumption that we will, that “let’s go on because we can …”

CLARK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and we will … if that isn’t what ultimately leads to a diminutation of the moral obligation of government to play the role that we thought it was going to play and that for a while it did play in the great Civil Rights of the, of the sixties. If you make the assumption it’s going to happen, it’s gong to come from us eventually. We got to the moon, we’ll get to integration. Isn’t that a basic fallacy that just leads eventually to a withdrawal of the force of government from …


HEFFNER: … Civil Rights activities.

CLARK: No, we’re not going to get to integration by the fact that, you know, we should, or that the Bible or the Christian, or the Declaration of Independence, or Title 7 … no. It will be much more difficult to get to a functional integration in American society, than it was to get to the moon.

But it will require pretty much the same sort of ingredients. Such as commitment. Without a commitment to do this, we’re not going to do it. And commitment will be contaminated by political pandering. Commitment will certainly be contaminated. By the way, turning back to the referendum, I don’t remember that Kennedy in his reaction to Sputnik decided to have a referendum on the American people as to whether we should develop the massive space program.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you this question … in the 20 seconds that we have left … do you see, at all, any sign of the commitment that you were talking about?

CLARK: Maybe only as a counter reaction to the lack of commitment of the last couple of years.

HEFFNER: Is there a focal point for that commitment?

CLARK: Not yet. And I presume the only time it will come is when people begin to see that they’re suffering from it’s not coming.

HEFFNER: Kenneth Clark, thanks very much for joining me today on …

CLARK: Well thank …

HEFFNER: … The Open Mind.

CLARK: Well, thank you so much for asking me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you, too, will join us here again on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend of both of us used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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