Brown v. Board of Education: Personality Damage as a Constitutional Issue
Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that overturned school segregation, and certainly one of the most important of the twentieth century, was also the first to place psychological arguments at the very heart of a Supreme Court decision. The Court's fondness for social science dated back to Muller v. Oregon in 1908, a case that deployed data collected by social researchers and settlement house
workers to argue that the constitutionality of protective legislation limiting women's work hours should be upheld. (It was.) But Brown went further. It illustrated how effectively psychological perspectives on the development of racial identity, and the damage done to it by prejudice, could penetrate the public sphere as constitutional issues.
In 1951 Robert Carter and Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund put out the call for social-scientific help in the state-level cases that preceded Brown. Marshall explained what was considered a chancy and extremely unorthodox legal strategy as follows.
I told the staff that we had to try this case [Briggs v. Elliott in South Carolina] just like any other one in which you would try to prove damages to your client. If your car ran over my client, you'd have to pay up, and my function as an attorney would be to put experts on the stand to testify to how much damage was done. We needed exactly that kind of evidence in the school cases. When Bob Carter came to me with Ken Clark's doll test, I thought it was a promising way of showing injury to these segregated youngsters.
Organized by Kenneth Clark, psychologists did indeed attempt to prove damages in Briggs v. Elliott and the other cases that led up to Brown . Consider, for example, Clark's own role in Briggs. He administered a psychological test (very similar to the coloring test described above, but employing dolls instead) to the children in whose name the suit had been brought. Then he offered the following testimony to the court, in which many of the themes of postwar psychological research and theory on racial identity can be found.
I have reached the conclusion that discrimination, prejudice and segregation have definitely detrimental effects on the personality development of the Negro child. The essence of this detrimental effect is a confusion in the child's concept of his own self-esteem—basic feelings of inferiority, conflict, confusion in the self-image, resentment, hostility towards himself, hostility towards whites . . . [or] a desire to resolve his basic conflict by sometimes escaping or withdrawing .
Arguments such as these did not significantly sway the judges involved, who sided with the state, but the NAACP legal team did not abandon the strategy of showing damage. When the Brown case was being prepared, members of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) were asked to write a summary statement of the supportive testimony that social and behavioral scientists had offered in all the school segregation cases to that point. SPSSI formed a committee in order to comply with this request and eventually the statement was
signed by thirty-two behavioral scientists and filed as an appendix to the appellants' brief in Brown . The signatories comprised an honor roll of World War II-era experts; many had pioneered work on the effects of prejudice on wartime morale. They included Gordon Allport, Hadley Cantril, Kenneth Clark, Mamie Clark, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Otto Klineberg, Alfred McClung Lee, R. Nevitt Sanford, and Samuel Stouffer.
The statement itself was titled "The Effects of Segregation and the Consequences of Desegregation: A Social Science Statement." Admitting that the question of personality was located "on the frontiers of scientific knowledge," it nevertheless made a forceful case that "segregation, prejudices and discriminations, and their social concomitants potentially damage the personality of all children—the children of the majority group in a somewhat different way than the more obviously damaged children of the minority group." The damage was done through a process that destroyed self-esteem (in the case of black children) and generated guilt feelings, unrealistic rationalizations, and uncritical idealization of authority (in the case of white children). The authors had been influenced by Myrdal's faith in the "American Creed" as well as by their own work in the field of race relations. While the statement was being prepared, Gordon Allport wrote to Kenneth Clark,
The one point that I hope will be made to the Supreme Court is this: People really know that segregation is un-American, even the masses in the South know it. They also have prejudices. This mental conflict is acute. . . . But, let the backbone come from the Supreme Court, and it will strengthen the moral backbone of those who now live in conflict. The decision will be accepted with only a flurry of anger, and soon subside. People do accept legislation that fortifies their inner conscience.
The finished product made empirical evidence of psychological damage the focal point of the argument. Because twisted psychology could have such negative social consequences—riots and racial violence were the events most frequently cited—immediate action should be taken to desegregate schools. The statement tried to convince its audience that behavioral science, during World War II and in the years since, pointed inevitably toward this goal. It tried to reassure the Supreme Court justices that desegregation would proceed smoothly and nonviolently provided their decision was firm and united.
The statement was a huge success. The Brown decision argued that racial segregation in educational institutions had to be eliminated, not
only because it violated the civil rights of black schoolchildren, but because it damaged the integrity of their psychological development. The opinion respectfully noted the contemporary insights of "psychological knowledge."
To separate them [black students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. . . . A sense of inferiority. affects the motivation of a child to learn. . . . Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority.
Kenneth Clark's work and his impact on the Midcentury White House Conference were prominently noted in Brown's eleventh footnote, along with references to the work of Gunnar Myrdal, E. Franklin Frazier, and others. The decision produced an unprecedented level of concerted debate about the role of such evidence and the apparent legal power of psychology's "modern authority." The decision's opponents reacted by, on the one hand, mounting McCarthyite attacks on the "socialism" of the social sciences and, on the other, by enlisting social science on the side of segregation.
Brown was celebrated as well as scrutinized. Throughout the social scientific community, the decision was greeted with an outpouring of jubilation. In 1954 Senator McCarthy was censured by the Senate and the temperature of domestic anticommunism was finally starting to drop. Most experts probably thought the camouflage that racist reactionaries had found in anti-Communist rhetoric was transparent, and no real threat to their status. Apparently unconcerned, many psychologists continued to work with the NAACP, and other civil rights organizations, putting themselves at the service of legal and political strategies designed to thwart resistance to Brown throughout the South. As had been the case during World War II, doing the right thing and advancing the causes of science and professionalization were so tightly enmeshed as to be inseparable. Experts associated with the Brown statement exulted in the view that the 1954 decision had been "a landmark in the development and practical significance of the social sciences."
Subsequent developments would cause some of them to rethink this view. White resistance to Brown, which materialized immediately and sometimes took shocking and violent forms, made it plain that predictions (such as Allport's, quoted above) of orderly compliance with the "American Creed" had been overstated, to put it mildly. Desegregation
efforts during the fifteen years following Brown offered no convincing data that the tide of psychological damage had been stemmed, either among whites or blacks. If anything, self-esteem became an increasingly public issue as time passed. After the civil rights movement's turn toward nationalism in the mid-1960s, black activists expressed great hostility toward arguments about the psychological damage wrought by segregation. Instead of repeating old maxims about the disorganizing effects of slavery, they dusted off histories of slave resistance, emphasized the cohesiveness of black families, and celebrated the resilience of black culture over time. Infused with pride, many black Americans were no longer willing to serve as exemplars of psychological debility and, as often as not, turned the tables completely. White Americans were now accused of being "sick" or "pathological."
It was after this sea change in the movement that "The Effects of Segregation and the Consequences of Desegregation" came under fire for being a premature, naive, and unrealistic contribution to public policy. The self-esteem of southern black children was, it turned out in subsequent studies, higher than their northern counterparts. This finding, which prompted a cautious reassessment of segregation among advocates of integration, was not lost on advocates of black separatism like Malcolm X. In defense, Stuart Cook, one of the authors of the original statement, reasserted his belief that "we must neither underestimate the potential value of social science knowledge to significant societal decisions nor overlook our obligation to make that knowledge available when and where it is needed." This did not really answer the question, however, of how an allegedly scientific consensus had failed rather miserably to predict the course of desegregation and stand the test of close examination. If psychological recommendations for repairing personality damage had turned out not to be scientifically valid after all, what claims could psychological experts possibly make to influence future public policy?