Guest: Clark, Kenneth B.
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THE OPEN MIND
HOST: Richard Heffner
GUEST: Kenneth Clark
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. A decade ago, when the American Psychological Association bestowed its first Annual Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the public interest to my guest today, the APA’s citation read in part, “a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement and in the continuing fight for equality and justice for all individuals, Professor Kenneth B. Clark has expertly translated fundamental principles of human behavior – many of which he discovered and formulated during his brilliant career as a scholar, into policies and programs that have deepened the sense of self-respect and raised the hopes and expectations of countless individuals of every age, race and creed.” He “raised the hopes and expectations of countless individuals,” that’s true. Now a distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the City University of New York, Dr. Clark perhaps remains the best known for the extraordinary contribution his researches made to the United States Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring racial segregation in our public schools unconstitutional. Surely raising hopes and expectations for all Americans, black and white. But when Dr. Clark was last here a half dozen years ago, Nat Hentoff had just written a brilliantly perceptive and disturbing profile of him in the New Yorker. And I took the liberty of reporting from it seemingly contradictory notions, first, that though the High Court had used his researches to support its conclusion that segregation in our public schools generates in black children, “a feeling of inferiority, that may affect their hears and minds, in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Still, Dr. Clark was disappointed that the court had ignored two other points he had made. One: that racism was as profoundly American as the declaration of Independence, and two: that school segregation twisted the personality development of white as well as Negro children.” Then too, elated by the Brown decision, Dr. Clark had still predicted that 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. Then I asked Dr. Clark if that actually proved justified. Now, I won’t characterize his answer, the hopes and expectations raised by Brown, and later by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1060s, generally justified?
They were justified in the sense of hope.
Well, accomplishment in some areas of American life. Oddly enough, in the southern parts of the United States there have been accomplishments that one cannot just ignore. One cannot pretend that the problems of racial injustices and segregation and cruelty are as flagrant today as they were before Brown. Where I find the keenest disappointment are in the northern areas of the United States, in places like New York, Boston, Philadelphia. I did not, and I make the confession very blandly, clearly, that I did not believe that racism was as deep and as pernicious in northern states, in northern cities, as it turned out to be since Brown.
DO YOU FIND THAT ANY INROADS AT ALL HAVE BEEN MADE IN THE NORTH? IN THE NON-SOUTHERN, NON-ORIGINAL SLAVE STATE AREAS?
You’re pushing me!
SURE, I’M PUSHING YOU.
No. In fact, let’s take a very specific example of racism,. namely segregated schools. In the 1950’s there were segregated schools in New York City. In the 1980’s the children who are attending segregated schools are much greater. There is a much higher percentage of children in New York City, white and black, are attending racially segregated schools than was true in the 1950’s. I do not see that education has avoided racism in northern cities.
BECAUSE OF EDUCATORS? OR BECAUSE OF OTHER FACTORS?
Well, certainly the educators have not communicated to the public that being inflicted with race interferes with their ability to communicate to American children what education is about. I just don’t understand that. Educators seem to me to be timid. Either they themselves have been so afflicted by the racism of their own education that they don’t want to really turn the system around, or they’re afraid… they don’t want to alienate the races’ public officials or the public.
WELL, YOU SAT ON THE BOARD OF REGENTS OF NEW YORK STATE FOR SOME YEARS.
Don’t remind me!
I’VE GOT TO REMIND YOU BECAUSE I NEED TO KNOW, WHEN YOU MAKE YOUR BET AS TO WHETHER IT IS EITHER/OR, EITHER THE RESULT OF THEIR OWN TRAINING, THEIR OWN ACULTURATION, OR THE RESULT OF THEIR CONCERNS ABOUT THE POLITICAL FORCES IN OUR TIME, WHICH… WOULD YOU PUT THE WEIGHT?
I don’t think I’d put it either/or. I can just argue that the damage which racially segregated and racist forms of education which dominate northern schools is so deep that one can’t understand it, except that I’ve always felt –as you said — I sat on the Board of Regents for 21 years. I’ve always felt that if the Regents and those who are responsible for education in our nation and in our state were to look at the problems, the deficiencies of racial education affecting white children negatively, that they’d do something about it. However, they look upon the problems and the inferior quality and standards of education, and therefore inferior treatment, which are clear as far as black children are concerned, they look upon this as something which they really can’t do very much about. They would do something about it if it were white children who were being obviously disturbed educationally as far as the treatment…
CAN THEY DO VERY MUCH ABOUT IT WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF OUR — NOT ONLY OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM, BUT WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THE WAY YOU NOW BELIEVE AMERICANS THINK? MAYBE YOU WERE MORE…
Well, they can’t do anything about it as long as they don’t believe they can, as long as they don’t take any risk or chances. In the area of race, American educators are less willing to take chances in terms of helping the American people to grow up, to become mature about this issue than they are about anything else. Now they’re talking about, and maybe rightly so, AIDS and sex education and things of that sort, but they are not talking about how do you improve the moral, ethical and human qualities of the children in our schools. They consider this more risky than to talk about sex, which I think is fascinating.
WHEN — A FEW MONTHS AGO, WHEN I KNEW THAT IT WAS TIME FOR ME TO ASK KENNETH CLARK TO COME BACK TO THE OPEN MIND, I THEN SAW A REPORT OF A MORE RECENT MEETING OF THE AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION AND THE FACT THAT MORE STUDIES, STUDIES TAKING PLACE IN OUR OWN TIME, AS YOUR STUDY AND MRS. CLARK’S STUDIES HAD TAKEN PLACE FORTY YEARS AGO, ALSO SHOW LOW ESTEEM LINGERING IN BLACK YOUTHS. NOW IT HAD BEEN YOUR STUDIES THAT HAD BEEN SO IMPORTANT IN DEVELOPING THE UNANIMITY OF THE BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION DECISION. I HAD WANTED, BEFORE I KNEW ABOUT THIS STUDY, TO ASK YOU WHETHER YOU THOUGHT THINGS HAD CHANGED, AND I WAS GOING TO ASK YOU ANOTHER QUESTION, WHETHER YOU THOUGHT THAT IN OUR OWN TIMES WE WOULD JUST, NOT AS EASILY BECAUSE IT WASN’T EASY, WHETHER WE WOULD, IN ALL LIKELIHOOD, GET A UNANIMOUS SUPREME COURT DECISION DECLARING SEGREGATION IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS UNCONSTITUTIONAL. IN OTHER WORDS, HOW MUCH PROGRESS OR HOW FAR BACK HAVE WE MOVED IN THESE THIRTY SOMETHING YEARS?
You started out by telling me that I once had hope and I confess that I did. After the Brown decision I had hope which was probably a great deal of wishful thinking. I do not believe that if you were to take the school segregation cases to the United States Supreme Court today, that you would get a unanimous decision. What’s even worse, I do not believe that you would get social scientists, who work so closely with me in preparing the materials which we presented to the United States Supreme Court — I do not think that you would get that kind of agreement among social scientists.
WELL, THAT’S A SURPRISE. HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THAT?
Well, I explain it by neo-conservatism that is sort of permeated whole areas of our social and ethical thought and human thought. And particularly, I think, in the area of race. We know, and by we, I mean the American people, know the damage that racism does to American children. They may not know the extent of the damage that it does to white children, but they certainly know and see the damage which racism and inferior racially segregated schools do, to black children. But we are not willing to do anything about it. Unlike the German people who claim that they didn’t know about the concentration camps, the United States Supreme Court made it clear to us what the damage was that we were doing to black children. But we are able and willing to permit that damage to continue because they are black children.
I WOULD ASK YOU THEN TO EXPLAIN THAT AS I — IT’S NOT THAT YOU’VE SHOCKED ME INTO SPEECHLESSNESS, BUT I WOULD LIKE YOU TO EXPLAIN THAT PSCHOLOGICALLY.
I guess it’s a totality — racism perpetuates itself. I did not realize the depth of American racism until I observed what was happening in the United States since Brown. I didn’t realize that — a number of people seem to be surprised about Howard Beach and other examples of white adolescents venting their racial hostilities through violence. I was not surprised at South Boston where white children took the American flag and used it as a basis for striking out against blacks. I didn’t realize until I saw these examples and the extent to which racism in our educational system impaired the ability of our children, white children and black children, to be human once color becomes a factor. This is a terrible thing that we are doing to our children. I felt terribly sorry for the white children in South Boston when I saw their faces on television corroded with hate. Ironically, I feel sorry for those white children in Howard Beach because we defaulted in not helping them to understand that you cannot vent hostility on other human beings because of color. But our educational system has defaulted.
ARE THEY BEING PRIMATIVE? ARE THEY EXPRESSING — SEE, YOU SAID A MOMENT AGO, TEACH THEM TO BE HUMAN, BUT AREN’T THEY BEING, AREN’T THEY DOING WHAT COMES NATURALLY? DO THEY REALLY HAVE TO BE TAUGHT TO HATE, WHICH WAS A NOTION WE HAD DECADES AGO? DO YOU STILL HOLD ON TO THAT NOTION?
Well, we certainly — if you are not being taught to hate, you certainly are not being taught to be sensitive and empathic and respectful of your fellow human beings. And that is almost -in a racist society where you have traditional racism, if our educational system does not teach our young people that racism and racial hostility is the sign of primitive barbaric superstition, then that’s almost as bad as teaching them to hate.
BUT DR. CLARK, I’M REALLY ASKING WHERE DO WE BEGIN, GIVEN THE EQUIPMENT WE START WITH? WHERE DO WE BEGIN — HAVING TO BE TAUGHT TO LOVE? OR HAVING TO BE TAUGHT TO HATE?
I’m not talking about loving. I’m talking about…
Yes. I believe that the most important goal of education is that of teaching human beings to understand and see the commonality among their fellow human beings. Our American educational institutions do not see this as a major priority or as a priority at all. As long as you have racism, as long as you have segregated schools, you are not going to yet this kind of approach to what is the meaning of education.
IT’S BEEN THIRTY-FOUR YEARS SINCE BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION.
That long ago!
THIRTY-FOUR YEARS FROM, NOW I WONDER WHERE WE’LL BE AND WHAT YOU THINK, AGAIN AS A PSYCHOLOGIST, NOT AS AN OPTIMIST OR A PESSIMIST. IT IS ONE WHO HAS, AS THE A.P.A. SAID, STUDIED HUMAN MOTIVATIONS. WHERE DO YOU THINK WE’LL BE? WHAT CHANCE IS THERE THAT WE WILL HAVE A KIND OF SOCIETY YOU SAW FOR US AFTER BROWN?
I’m afraid to answer you because, you know, I made all these positive predictions…
WELL, GO AHEAD, BE MY GUEST.
I don’t know. I really believe that color is an infection; a psychological infection which is extremely difficult for human beings to deal with, to remedy. I really am more pessimistic or as you said, don’t be pessimistic or optimistic, but I really feel today that the chances of Americans having their educational and their religious institutions turn around and begin to see the need for educating human beings, to respect their fellow human beings, are pretty slim. Now, they’ll do it rhetorically, I mean, they’ll do it with words. But I’m talking about even the Church. The religious institutions are, to me, as much in default as our educational institutions. It just so happens that I’m more identified with educational institutions than I’ve been with religious institutions, but you associate color and status, color and economic levels, and continue that, and it is not likely to change very much except verbally.
YOU STILL FEEL THEN, IN THE DEBATE THAT HAS RAGED, THAT THIS IS A MATTER OF RACE NOT ECONOMICS.
No, I think its race. I think it’s race, I think it’s color and I think human beings are, you take white ethnic groups, they have a much greater chance of upward mobility and acceptance, even with class distinctions, than do black human beings or brown human beings. And I think that color and race is the — these are the barriers to understanding and decency.
WHAT THEN DO YOU ADVISE THE BLACK POPULATION TO DO? IF YOU POSIT, AS YOU DO, THIS FUTURE? WHAT IS THE ADVICE THEN THAT YOU GIVE…
I don’t know that the black population is particularly interested in my advice because there was a time, not so long ago, that I kept arguing for integration and fighting for integration while the popular group, not necessarily the majority by the way, of the black population was asking for racism and asking for separateness and black separatism. And my particular position was not popular at that time.
HAS THAT POSITION CHANGED?
No! I don’t believe that blacks have any more justification for racism than do whites. What I thought the black separatists were doing was just imitating white supremacists, white separatists, and I thought it was kind of stupid. However, they didn’t lose anything nor did they gain anything by this, it was just going around in circles, color being a stupid basis for making judgments about human beings.
DO YOU THINK CHANGES WILL COME IN TERMS OF A GROWING POLITICAL POWER THAT BLACKS HAVE?
I don’t know.
DO YOU THINK THEY HAVE GROWING POLITICAL POWER?
They have more blacks in political office. I mean, there are more black congressmen now than there were around Brown. There are more black mayors and I don’t know that this will get at the very heart of the problem of racial hostility and antagonisms.
I WONDER THEN WHAT — AGAIN, WHAT YOU SAW AS, FORGET THE QUESTION OF ADVICE, WHAT YOU SAW AS COMING TO PASS. WHAT YOUR RESEARCHERS BACK BEFORE BROWN PROVIDED THURGOOD MARSHAL, WHO ARGUED THAT CASE SO BRILLIANTLY BEFORE THE SUPREME COURT, SO MUCH THAT HE COULD WORK WITH. NOW THURGOOD MARSHAL IS ON THE BENCH. SAID RECENTLY THAT FOR ALL OF THE TALK ABOUT OUR BICENTENNIAL CELEBRATION OF THE CONSTITUTION, WE HAD FORGOTTEN THAT IN REFERENCE TO THE BLACK MAN AND IN REFERENCE TO WOMEN, THE CONSTITUTION WAS EITHER SILENT OR VERY NEGATIVE AND I WONDER HOW YOU RESPONDED TO THE REPORTS OF HIS COMMENTS.
I think that Thurgood is very able to speak for his own, but I must say to you that as I listened and read about what he said in his statement about Mr. Reagan, I felt that Justice Marshal was as pessimistic as I am. It must have taken a great deal of negative feelings for him to make the comments that he made.
BECAUSE HE HAS RESTRAINED HIMSELF PUBLICLY…
Oh, he certainly has. But I think what we don’t really understand is that a great deal of the popularity of Mr. Reagan and his advisors involves their very skillful use of the deep and latent American racism. I don’t know, certainly in my adult life I don’t know any political group who have been more skillful in the use of latent and not so latent American racism as this administration has been.
IT IS INTERESTING TO ME THAT YOU’RE QUITE READY, QUITE WILLING TO REFER TO RACISM, WHICH IS SOMETHING IN THIS COUNTRY THAT NOT VERY MANY PEOPLE IN PUBLIC LIFE ARE WILLING TO REFER TO.
DENIAL, DENIAL, DENIAL.
AND YOU SEE IT AS THE ONLY EXPLANATION…
I think, the denial is an example of its deep depth. One of the things that I thought was fascinating when I used to study seriously American racism was the extent to which the individuals who were arguing against racism were called racists. It you were saying, “look, you can’t do this, this is institutional racism,’ well, a fascinating form of denial would say, ‘you can’t say this is institutional racism, that’s racist.” I must tell you, sometimes I laughed at this inversion of the problem.
WE HAVE FORTY-FIVE SECONDS LEFT. A FEW YEARS AGO YOU WERE VERY, VERY ANGRY. WHAT I READ THAT YOU SAID SEEMED TO ME TO INDICATE THAT YOU WERE AT THE HEIGHT OF ANGER ABOUT THE QUESTION OF RACE. DO YOU FEEL THAT NOW, OR ARE YOU — GIVEN UP?
I’m not as angry as I used to be because I have taken it for granted. I’ve accepted the fact that America will continue racism and what we’ll have to do is to try to prevent the more violent and cruel manifestations of it.
KENNETH CLARK, WHEN ANOTHER SIX YEARS ROLE BY I’LL INVITE YOU BACK HERE AND WE’LL SEE IF YOU…
Who’s the optimist.
ALRIGH’T, I’M THE OPTIMIST ABOUT THAT. BUT WE’LL INVITE YOU BACK AND SEE IF WE CAN BOTH LOOK AT THIS A LITTLE MORE OPTIMISTICALLY. THANK YOU FOR JOINING ME TODAY. THANKS TOO TO YOU IN THE AUDIENCE, I HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US AGAIN NEXT TIME. AND IF YOU CARE TO SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT TODAY’S PROGRAM, TODAY’S GUEST, PLEASE WRITE THE OPEN MIND, P. O. BOX 7977, F.D.R. STATION, NEW YORK, NEW YORK, 10150. FOR TRANSCIPTS, SEND $2.00 IN CHECK OR MONEY ORDER. MEANWHILE, AS ANOTHER OLD FRIEND USED TO SAY, “GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK.
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