In the Public Interest

This month I was clear as to what should be addressed in this column: The focus should be on Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, who has served psychology, APA and the nation exceedingly well, in fact helping change the course of its race relations and civil rights history. In my mind, he is one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century (even though he was, incredibly, omitted from such a list recently published in the Review of General Psychology [Vol. 6, No. 2]).

Obviously, one could not write about Ken Clark in 2004 without making reference to his research on the "doll studies," in which Clark and his wife, Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, found that black children, when given choices, consistently preferred white dolls over brown ones. It was concluded that these preferences were due to racial segregation and were interpreted as psychologically damaging. That research, along with studies by other social scientists, was utilized by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education.

Then, as now, many believe that Ken Clark's participation, solicited by Thurgood Marshall, then legal director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was critical in moving the justices to their decision to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson and its doctrine of "separate but equal." The use of the social science research findings as a basis for supporting important policy decisions had taken its first step, and, as it turned out, a giant one at that, toward using psychological science to assist in the shaping of public policy.

So one certainly not only observes May 17 as the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, but also acknowledges the significant role played by Ken Clark and others to make psychological science and psychologists welcome participants in national policy debates. All psychologists must have felt a sense of having arrived when Chief Justice Warren stated that, "Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority," referring, of course, to the social science research cited in the decision's footnote 11. Warren continued, saying, "Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected."

Seventeen years later, Kenneth B. Clark, PhD, was elected president of APA, perhaps an acknowledgment of his earlier efforts, but sufficiently enough removed from the 1954 event so that one cannot be sure.

One legacy of his presidency was the establishment of the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility in Psychology (BSERP), which now serves as one of the historical legs of the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest, the other being the Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs. Since two-legged stools are tricky to use, when using this metaphor I always think of social justice serving as the balancing third leg. (A more complete account of Clark's BSERP legacy can be found in a 2002 account by Dr. Wade Pickren and myself in the American Psychologist [Vol. 57, No. 1].)

A little more than a decade ago, Dr. Robert Perloff and I had the opportunity to spend a day with Dr. Clark in his New York office. We were there to interview him because it was thought that his health would not permit him to attend APA's Centennial Convention. (It turned out that he was well enough to attend.) Dr. Perloff, also a former APA president, was to perform a long-delayed post-presidential interview, and I was there to ensure that APA's first and only African-American past-president would not be invisible (for reasons of health) as APA celebrated its 100th birthday.

As one might imagine, the interview covered myriad topics--fortunately some of it was filmed--but one thing in particular Dr. Clark wanted others to know was the role that his wife, Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, had played in his career and especially in the doll study, which had grown out of results of her master's thesis, completed at Howard University. He thought others had not given her sufficient credit for her contribution to their life's work, which was, in fact, a partnership.

By the time this column is published, it will have missed the 50th birthday of Brown v. Board of Education and will be just ahead of Dr. Clark's own July 24 birthday, which, of course, will be his 90th! As is the case for many nonagenarians, Ken Clark is experiencing age-related difficulties and is not in the best of health, but on behalf of his many colleagues, admirers and friends, I wish him the best.