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Black History and Psychology: Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark and Dr. Kenneth Clark

Andrea Harris Smith is the granddaughter of Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark, the renowned clinical psychologists and educators whose research with African American children was central to arguments that led to the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools. She lives not far from my office, Northwest Washington DC, where the playgrounds are regularly filled with women of color, exchanging stories and mindfully watching their young ones: Nannies of every nationality.

Ms. Smith, the mother of a biracial child, writes, “the playground is a perfect container for the dynamics of belonging and isolation, conscious or unconscious.”

Ms. Smith’s grandparents designed a study commonly known in developmental psychology textbooks as “the doll test”, in which they used four dolls, male and female, identical except for color, to test children’s racial perceptions. Black and white dolls were presented to children to help determine their preferences and sense of self. Most of the children preferred the white dolls to the Black ones. They said the Black dolls were “bad” and the white dolls looked most like them, reflecting not how they actually looked but how they wanted to be. The white dolls were also described as more likable and more attractive.

The findings helped the Supreme Court to conclude that segregation was detrimental to the self-esteem and mental health of both Black and white children. The Doctors Clark founded Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem; a community clinic for children and families that supports behavioral, mental and educational health. It was one of the first centers of its kind, founded over 70 years ago, and still in operation today. The contributions they made in psychology continue to influence psychologists, families, students, professors, advocates, researchers, and lawmakers.

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, who personally faced incredible hurdles throughout her life and educational and professional career stated: “This is probably one of the most dangerous things facing mankind today:  A use and training of intelligence excluding moral sensitivity.“

Also read, “A Tribute to Psychologist De. Mamie Phipps Clark.”

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