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.