Raggedy Andy: Anderson Cooper’s Misuse of Race and the Doll Test

Raggedy Andy: Anderson Cooper’s Misuse of Race and the Doll Test


Today, May 17th, marks the birthday of the historic Brown vs Board of Education of 1954, which outlawed segregation in education. In a 9-0 decision, the Warren Supreme Court proclaimed that the “opportunity of an education…is a right which must be available to all on equal terms”.

This decision, and the subsequent 1955 “deliberate speed” decision, also known as “Brown II”, created a ripple effect to desegregate all facets of American life, from lunch counters to federal jobs. More importantly, the Brown case is not just for Brown people. This landmark case opened up opportunity for almost every minority group and has particularly helped white women, who still benefit greatly from desegregated higher education as well as subsequent affirmative action policies than any other group.

As a scholar who has written extensively on race and segregation in education it should be noted that social science played a huge role (some would argue the defining role) in Brown v. Board. At the time race and social science, pioneered by W.E.B DuBois in his 1899 study “The Philadelphia Negro”, was gaining more legitimacy by the 1930s and 1940s with noted African American scholars such as E.Franklin Frazier, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan and John Hope Franklin continuing to make the argument that DuBois advanced some decades earlier that racism and racial segregation arrested the progress of black people. Their research was used by Thurgood Marshall and NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers to bolster the legal argument before the Supreme Court.

The most recognized study coming out of that time period is psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clarke’s “Doll Study”, which, in sum, sought to illustrate, through Black children’s preferences for white dolls, the effects of entrenched racial segregation and white supremacy on their identity and development. Since the Brown case, this test has been duplicated time and again, with similar results.

Most recently, respected scholar, Margaret Beale Spencer (also one of my professors when I was a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania) conducted a similar “Doll Test” type pilot study showing that not only do both Black and white children develop perceptions and preferences of race early on, but they continue to harbor these same views through much of their young life.

As a trained social scientist, I have no problem with thoughtful and well-executed studies being conducted to increase our public understanding of how race and racism “operate” in our everyday lives. These studies could yield fresh insight into how, in the absence of legal segregation, racism and social stratification limit life chances for people, and can hopefully inform more creative approaches in our policies, institutions and at the grassroots level to achieve social justice.

I do , however, have a problem when studies like the “Doll Test” is done shabbily by journalists like Anderson Cooper of CNN. Recently, war journalist turn pop-psychologist, Anderson Cooper recreated a doll test with several Black and white children. Using the aid of cartoons and blue cue cards, he proceeded to ask young kids questions about a previous study and to point to a cartoon character they believe is “prettiest” or “good”. Invariably, a number of young children, Black and white, showed preference for the white and lighter colored cartoons displayed on a poster.

A sigh of relief came toward the end in the experiment when two young Black girls expressed the belief that color does not matter, and seemed to reject a preference for the lighter colored cartoons. But I cringed when I saw this. What credentials does Cooper have to ask such sensitive questions to kids? Did he pass human subjects screening that all social scientists need to do before they ask questions to subjects? Its a reckless fetishizing of race masquerading as shock journalism.

Now, CNN has fumbled race topics before with prequels such “Black in America”, “Latino in America”, where the conversations and interviews were so thin, the viewer is left with the feeling that all that was needed is one big multiracial group hug. Indeed much of the post-Brown v. Board race talk is like this, reduced to discussions of preferences or tastes among whites and Blacks, where apologies substitute for policy and where observing people’s culture and behavior are safe bets rather than a harder examination of nagging structures of inequality and racial hierarchy.

We breathe a sigh of relief when at least one Black or white child says “race should not matter” but double digit unemployment for Blacks (even when the economy was doing well) and hypersegregated, failing schools (even after Brown v Board) prove otherwise. Time to move beyond the surface with this race talk and get to the bottom of why race still matters in the United States.


  1. Had you actually paid attention you would have known that Anderson Cooper did not conduct the test or ask the questions. The test was conducted by two child psychologists, one white and one African American. The test was designed and the results analyzed by child psychologist Margaret Beal Spencer, a leader in the field.

  2. The study on CNN actually WAS designed and run by Margaret Beale Spencer who also appeared on AC360 to discuss the results. Also, the questions were asked by same-race interviewers to avoid a potential bias that black children would simply try to please a white interviewer. The show on Friday was also just part 1 of the series.

    It seems that it is you and not Cooper who demonstrated shabby research.

  3. i understand where you are coming from, but i would have liked the article to actually begin w/ CNN's work, THEN dive into the race and history lesson. its an easier read and gets to your point quicker.

    • Hi, I am one of the few bloggers who actually responds to his work. Thank you for the energy around this issue. Yes, I am quite familiar with Dr. Spencer's work and respect her work greatly (she was a distinguished professor when I was a grad student in the Ed School at the University of Pennsylvania). That's why I believe she should be the only one conducting that type of very sophisticated and quite sensitive study with children, not a journalist who takes the data and then performs it with children. In this piece, given the birthday of Brown v. Board, I wanted to provide context for how this test is historically grounded in black psychology, and needs to be seen within that context and not used just for ratings.

  4. Noel – Thank you for responding. CNN commissioned Dr. Spencer to do the study and she was on the show to discuss it. I'm confused about what part of the show made you think Anderson Cooper was the one asking the kids the questions. There are several more parts to the study coming up on the show where the historical context might be discussed by both Cooper and Soledad O'Brien who is also involved in this presentation.

  5. "Had you actually paid attention you would have known that Anderson Cooper did not conduct the test or ask the questions."

    "I’m confused about what part of the show made you think Anderson Cooper was the one asking the kids the questions."

    So what is Mr. Cooper actually doing in the picture above? Simply smiling for the camera? Watch the clip at http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/index…. On camera he is asking the questions. Again, what about the issue? All this seems to be missing the larger issue.

  6. These questions, both in the test and in this video with Anderson, look rehearsed and coached and some of the questions were leading, sometimes the desired response was contained in the questions themselves. Many of the children gave the same type of response,using the same wording and they seemed to look around for cues as to what to say and when to say it.

    This particular exchange in the video with Anderson sent up a red flag for me:

    COOPER: "What do you think of that skin color?

    CHILD: It looks kind of whitish and. . .that's all I remember."

  7. I rarely respond to blogs, but you are completely misrepresenting the facts of how this study was conducted. Numerous readers have pointed this out to you, but you continue to ignore what they have said. I know you want to make a name for yourself, but doing it by misrepresenting facts seems inappropriate. Dr. Spencer and her team conducted this study, interviewing more than 130 kids in 8 different schools. If you have a problem with her methodology, you should write about that, instead you write that i have "recreated" the doll study, and asked, "What credentials does Cooper have to ask such sensitive questions to kids? Did he pass human subjects screening that all social scientists need to do before they ask questions to subjects?" As you should know, I did not conduct this study. When the study was done, I interviewed a number of parents of the children, and i talked to a handful of the children after they had completed the study, to ask them about some of their answers. I'm a reporter, I interview people. I care about facts. I would hope you do as well.

    • Anderson, I left a voice mail message inviting you to present your perspective on our site. The offer still stands. While I'm sorry you feel slighted, I'm especially glad you took the time to visit and comment. We believe that comments are a continuation of the story. Thank you for continuing the story.

    • Anderson, Why do your moderators continually delete comments from your blogs that question your study, your procedures, and your findings? I tried to bring up the Hraba findings on the live blog tonite to make a point, but they were deleted a number of times. If your results are so solid why is CNN afraid of questions and criticism?

  8. I am actually not misrepresenting the facts of the study. I give Dr. Spencer the respect she deserves and have read her work extensively. I am simply taking issue with the reporting, pointing out that to bridge a pilot study of this caliber with simple "follow up" questions with kids was not done well. To ask "follow up" questions about complex racial socialization, no matter how thin, should be done by someone skilled. Further, the way it was done simply keeps race more to the level of internalized views rather than bringing in more thoughtful analysis of how structures of inequity reinforce these internalized views. Reread my blog again, even with the history lesson, and those facts will come through.

  9. Did anyone read Dr. Anderson's blog post? He clearly cited the study done by Dr. Margaret Beale Spencer. The aforementioned problem, which I whole heartily agree with, was not with the study, but with the so called follow up conducted by AC (big fan btw). It's one thing to interview the doctors who conducted the survey, it's completely different when you interview the subjects of the study (especially when the subjects are young impressionable children). I don't think it's that big of a deal, but it does seem a little strange to me. I'm sure its not malicious, but it does smell of sensationalism. I'm just saying….

  10. Tonight Anderson said that the children were told they were going to be questioned about race. Chances are, as I suspected, the parents coached them about what to say.

    I think it does look like a ratings game. It is a shame that Anderson would choose such a serious topic for his own personal gain.

  11. Without something to compare to, the study is assuming this is not more deep-seeded than childhood exposure. Another study should take place in a region with little or no white population, and no exposure to media. For example, perform the same study in a remote tribal region of Africa with little or no education, magazines or television.

    Many other cultures had evolved a preference for lighter skin, often as a distinction from a working class. The point is, this may not be American-made social conditioning nor true racial bias, but something far more universal. Just the same, it may reveal a preference towards constrast in coloration between features and skin, as is normal in cartoons – and high contrast appeals to younger kids.

    While some children in the interviews gave reasons that could be considered racial, it should be noted that these children are not truly random, having had parents who were interested in allowing their kids participate in a race study. Consider it a loaded question, an answer to which we would only hear if it was sensational enough for prime time.

    Science with a goal is little more than entertainment.

    • @John, I like your comment. Studies that look at the connection between skin color and social power are compelling also. Africa is a great example given its history of colonialism and imperialism.

      @charla, I responded to the CNN piece, as a whole, because studies of this level, where they have had a controversial history (Clarke, for instance, was under attack for this study through most of his later life) and in some cases called into question because the very asking of questions can invoke reactions in adults, and especially children. Any type of follow up question with a study like this should not simply be an interview question by a journalist. Trained folks are taught to look for both voluntary and involuntary responses in folks, to look for stress levels or to make sure questions are not leading to wanted responses. So my point, which I think is different from CNNs, is we need to stop thinking everything is within limits for the sake of ratings. We need to have standards of how we do stories. A humbling thing would have been if a CNN had a disclaimer or even stated, that due to the "sensitivity of these tests, and the short and unseen long term effects, we will simply leave it to the experts"….especially when children are involved!

    • @John, your comment seems (dangerously) to suggest that a "preference" for whiter skin has legitimacy owing simply to human nature. Absolutely, there are cultures outside of the U.S. which demonstrate that preference –you use the word evolve to suggest this. Just because the valorization for white skin (and generally it is not just white skin, but anglo-saxon features as well) exists outside of this country does not mean it is not still a product of U.S. racialization and cultural hegemony. Please, be careful about making arguments that have been employed in the past to sponsor eugenics campaigns.

    • @Ellen, to discount all theories that disagree with some perceived acceptable belief smacks of intellectual fascism. We will get nowhere if we are so closed-minded as to assume that only theories of a given nature can be correct.

      We are, as products of evolution, prone to behaviors millions of years in the making. If not, women and men would be the same size, and share similar muscle and bone structure, in keeping with shared, unevolved behavior. Both gender and race differences played a role in animal survival in the past, and linger in behaviors to this day, like it or not. However, if you disagree that we are animals, I’m wasting my time with this point.

      Whatever underlying differences between us can be understood and accepted, and we can move on. However, if we indulge ourselves in creating myths for the sake of sparing feelings, we are setting an unsustainable precedent: we will always drift back to our human nature – just as reality inevitably conquers myth.

      The blacks in America are not simply black. Their predominantly slave ancestors were selected like animals for various qualities such as stamina and strength, and those who were least rebellious as slaves were more likely to survive against an armed master. If you disagree with this, I am wasting my time with this point.

      Through many years of segregation, blacks were mainly breeding amongst themselves, resulting in a relatively fixed gene pool – not small enough to cause inbreeding, but geographically limited enough to avoid new genes, including the reintroduction of traits held by those not selected as slaves in Africa. In other words, the genes we see today will still somewhat reflect the selections made by slave traders hundreds of years ago. If you disagree with this, I am wasting my time with this point.

      The white children in schools across America come from many family trees spread out over all of Europe. They are not coming from one of only a few regions over a single era, but from scores of regions over hundreds of years. All traits that are available in whites are likely to be found in this population. If you disagree with this, I am wasting my time with this point.

      When we are making comparisons between black and white children in America, we are comparing apples and oranges. Slaves were chosen for strength, stamina and agility, so their better-fed decendants are now dominating the sports world. It is therefore inescapable that measurable differences in genetic traits exist between blacks and whites.

      While millions of years of evolution allowed for the advent of genes for specific physical and behavioral traits, our optic abilities were also changing, enhancing social development. Pattern recognition, which was key to survival as predator, prey and competitor, was becoming more intimate, allowing us to read facial expressions. These expressions, combined with body language, are the basis for tribal and social differentiation and communication. We recognise others through simple caricatures made from the lines on people’s faces. The smiley face was an effort to determine the simplest recognizable caricature.

      However, the white face has light colored skin through which shadows and lines appear readily and from great distance. Lacking this available contrast, black features focused on being more pronounced, with a wider nose, big lips and high contrast eyes. This way, recognition was facilitated by more contrasted features, rather than more contrasted colors. Both work quite well, and each can produce a beautiful face.

      The experiment in question gives children little more than a paint chart, ranging from one end of a spectrum to another. This is its first flaw: children are immediately cued by the chart to pick from a line, with two ends, which is effectively “right” and which is effectively “wrong”. They will only naturally see that they are to choose dichotomistically, even though there are actually five faces. This flaw might’ve been avoided by using more faces, and having them arranged more randomly and not in a line, so to prevent from cueing the subjects.

      The second flaw is that they are using a white face template for all five faces. This is unnatural. As I’d mentioned, black faces are different to compensate for the lack of contrast. So the features will appear less striking on the black doll than the white – even appearing small. And, as we know from other studies, kids prefer big features, as can be seen by watching any Disney movie. Due to a similar lack of visible contrast, I suspect an albino doll might have done about as poorly as their black doll. Much the same, a white doll with wide nose and large lips would likely score poorly, as the contrast would overemphasize the features.

      The third flaw was that it was a linear scale. That is, there are no purple or yellow children. This would help offset the skew produced by the near-impossible looking black doll, which had black skin on otherwise white physical features. The black doll’s combination of features likely rendered it far outside of the child’s own personal experience, and, since we are baised towards the familiar, would naturally skew the results. How many black children subconciously found the black doll’s face unfamiliar?

      So while the flaws in the study itself were guaranteed to produce “significant” results, slavery-sourced genetic history may have equally resulted in an inescapable truth, however hard to accept. It is hopeful, naive tunnel vision to believe that American whites and blacks can or even should be the same, just as it is unlikely that any two whites, blacks, men or women will ever really be the same. Worse, if we think we can eliminate ancient, naturally-existing racial or gender bias through short-sighted, ad-hoc social policies, we are only putting a positive face on what is also, by definition, racially biased. Only when we stop deluding ourselves with rose-colored rhetoric will we be able to see things clearly and focus on accepting and dealing with our differences of any kind, and wittingly set aside our own, primitive human nature.

    • Gee Lou, thanks for visiting and commenting. In defense of Dr. Anderson, who hardly requires defending, I didn't see anything in his post that remotely suggests that "everything is racism." I read, however, that race matters and that it is too sensitive of a subject to treat lightly – especially with children. Still, I'm glad you stopped by.

  12. In a society where an increasing number of people gather information in clips, bits, and bytes, the media has an unprecedented responsibility to ensure that they don't misrepresent the very facts they endeavor to transmit. While the clip Dr. Anderson calls into question is part of a larger series, a viewer seeing only the follow-up "reporting" to the tests may draw similar conclusions and ask similar questions. If CNN had composed the piece with the general viewer in mind, we wouldn't be having this conversation. For the few who will watch the program in its entirety, I'm sure it's sufficient. For the rest of us, it provides more questions than answers. My biggest question is this: What was the point? I don't get it.

  13. Dr. Anderson are you familiar with the Hraba/Grant (1969) test done in England? They made the point that a preference for one doll did not necessarily mean a rejection of the others and in their findings black children most often prefered the black doll. CNN results seem like a step backwards.

  14. I bet Anderson Cooper and his producers WILL NOT do that again. It lacked the ethics journalist always rally about. It was sensational for them to do this and with all the cuts in the news room, shutting down of bureaus they are all chomping at the bit and what great way to cause a stir? By delving in (if thats what you call it) to race and children. How low and basic. Anderson go out into the field with your digital video camera, edit them and post some stories that matters for today and stay away from interviewing these Black children (SMH). Lazy journalism. AC asking "follow up" questions white as day to black children who view him as a celebrity and authority anyway! so sad. so sad the parents agreed to it, so sad CNN deletes posts. So glad the new digital technology will squash these AC types who have an open door into the homes of impressionable Americans. CNN (soledad you too) doesnt own the minds of what Black people should be concerned with. We are at a 16.5 percent unemployment rate, Spike Lee is doing a follow-up documentary Katrina, look at what is happening in Little Rock, Greenwood Mississippi. DO SOMETHING and stop repackaging concepts.

  15. […] As a scholar who has written extensively on race and segregation in education it should be noted that social science played a huge role (some would argue the defining role) in Brown v. Board. At the time race and social science, pioneered by W.E.B DuBois in his 1899 study “The Philadelphia Negro”, was gaining more legitimacy by the 1930s and 1940s with noted African American scholars such as E.Franklin Frazier, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan and John Hope Franklin continuing to make the argument that DuBois advanced some decades earlier that racism and racial segregation arrested the progress of black people. Their research was used by Thurgood Marshall and NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers to bolster the legal argument before the Supreme Court.     Click Here To Read More […]

  16. What vexes me most about this discussion is the reminder that the American Popular Media still tells the majority of their stories for a White perspective. I stopped watching TV Networks or Hollywood Film years ago for this reason. When I look at a huge production like Harry Potter and see only a few token people of color, I see how things have not changed and it vexes me.

    If you wonder why some children want to be White, just look at what they see on TV every day. Super Man is White. Spiderman is White. Batman is White. Ben 10 is White. Harry Potter is White. This is the problem. If most our celebrated heros are White, what do you think children want to be. I’ll tell you. The want to be Super Man and Batman and Harry Potter and Iron Man…

    As an African American father, I chose to simple cut the TV off. Our son’s self concept is taught by his family and not television. The longer we keep tuning in to this media, the more we and our children can be brainwashed by it.

    I think it is past time for concerned Americans to simple stop their addiction to popular media. Really! Turn off the TV!

  17. Shooting the messenger? I think anyone who believes there is no bias in America is nearly blind. I see a study done by a well respected psychologist confirming something that almost every black person in America knows to be true. Even the president remarks about distancing himself from traditional black stereotypes. If you think he is somehow above this we can review the “negro dialect” remarks from Harry Reid as a reminder. I’m not sure I expect America to turn into some racial wonderland where there are no prejudices at all. I assure you it would be the first country in the world. However, I grow tired of hearing people say that there is no such thing as racism and those that mention it are exaggerating. I see a major station who decided to give voice to a real problem that faces minorities and to an extent women (white or otherwise). Why would you condenm it in such a way? It is obvious that Anderson Cooper’s questions are not part of the study. They all focus on answers already given. I have never seen anything like it on any other station and I certainly don’t expect to. I for one applaud Cooper for trying. As an unusually wealthy, grey-haired liberal, TV personality, he is as far from the effects of stereotypes as anyone could get. As for the science behind the story I’l respectfully leave that to the experts to decide. However, the honesty in those children’s responses is obvious in the views of most americans.

  18. As many others have pointed out, if you are going to criticize an award-winning journalist and his staff you should have your facts straight. Anderson Cooper interviewed a few of the children FOLLOWING the study, but the actual study was completely conducted by licensed psychologists and Mr. Cooper and staff sat in a different room watching the feed. They weren’t even present in the room.

    • I posted this on CNN’s website too. Did anybody look at the actual numbers?

      What CNN doesn’t show is that, according to the data, a large portion of the children in the 9- and 10-year old group refused to answer the questions!

      For example, to the question “Which kid is the dumb kid?” 33% of the black children and 45% of the white children said something like “All kids are smart in something.” When asked “Which kid is the ugly kid?” 29% of the black children and 51% of the white children refused to answer!

      The percentages CNN presented were not calculated from the total number in each group (39 black kids and 29 white kids). Instead, they first subtracted the number of children who refused to answer and listed the percentages based on who was left–essentially inflating all of the numbers.

      Let’s take the “Which kid is ugly?” question: 5 white children picked the darkest skin tone. If you calculate the percentage from the 29 white children in the older group, that’s roughly 17%. However, if you subtract the *15 white kids* that wouldn’t answer the question (saying that none of the children were ugly) it doubles the percentage to almost 36% (or 5 out of 14).

      Additionally, for the same question about ugliness, 5 white kids picked the middle skin tones and 4 picked the lightest…which means they were more or less equally divided among all groups!

      The results are almost the opposite of what CNN is reporting! We should be happy that so many children of both races are expressing ideas of equality and appreciation–even when presented with forced-choice questions!

    • Hi Lauren, award-winning does not equal unaccountable, infallible or perfect. I think most people would commend Anderson Cooper and respect him, I do. However, the thing you’re defending is hardly what he’s been accused of. That stated, thank you for visiting and commenting. If you’re with CNN, then note that you’re more than welcome to post about the procedures, methods used in this “experiment.” Thanks.

  19. Elizabeth, I hope the information you gave is correct. If so, it shows that the kids were a lot smarter than the people testing them and CNN too. CNN should be ashamed for reporting such faulty “research.”

  20. Thank-you Dr. Anderson! You put in writing what is missing in the media, academic research, sound journalism and honest reporting. This type of media reporting is so old, detrimental and insulting as to how far we have not come in presenting academic research to the public. Thank-you for your for bringing academic and intellectual criticism to this subject, even if it is presented by another well know scholar or scholars.

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