Kenneth B. Clark

Psychologist and civil rights advocate
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The Independent Online

Once called "a courageous fighter as well as an inspired egghead", the psychologist Kenneth B. Clark was destined to wear this mantle of contradictions throughout his life. From the 1930s onwards, with his wife Mamie, also a psychologist, Clark conducted the "doll test" study among children in racially mixed northern and segregated southern schools in the United States. When asked to express their likes and dislikes about brown- and white-skinned dolls, invariably black children favoured the "good" white dolls.

Kenneth Bancroft Clark, psychologist, educationist and civil rights campaigner: born Panama Canal Zone 14 July 1914; Professor, City University of New York 1960-94 (Emeritus); married 1938 Mamie Phipps (died 1983; one son, one daughter); died Hastings-on-Hudson, New York 1 May 2005.

Once called "a courageous fighter as well as an inspired egghead", the psychologist Kenneth B. Clark was destined to wear this mantle of contradictions throughout his life. From the 1930s onwards, with his wife Mamie, also a psychologist, Clark conducted the "doll test" study among children in racially mixed northern and segregated southern schools in the United States. When asked to express their likes and dislikes about brown- and white-skinned dolls, invariably black children favoured the "good" white dolls.

Clark concluded that the experience of inferior status in school and society was psychologically damaging to the children. This evidence supported the legal brief which led to the Brown v Board of Education decision of 1954 in the US Supreme Court to outlaw state-supported school segregation.

Kenneth Bancroft Clark was born in the US-controlled Panama Canal Zone in 1914, in a community of West Indian descent. He grew up as a migrant child with his seamstress, union-organiser mother in a tenement in Harlem, New York. His childhood black heroes, the poet Countee Cullen and the bibliophile and curator Arthur Schomburg, illumined the way to a sparkling academic career. He advanced from secondary school in the Depression year 1932 to become in 1940 the first black psychology PhD graduate of Columbia University, and later, in 1960, the first black tenured professor at City University of New York.

Beneath his professed integrationist ideals, Clark showed a more than casual sensitivity to the causes of the 1960s urban black rebellions. His book Dark Ghetto: dilemmas of social power (1965) was called "a shocking indictment of black city slums" by Bertrand Russell. His compilation of interviews with James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jnr entitled The Negro Protest (1963) was intended, he said, to "reflect the quest of all Negroes for a positive identity and respect for their humanity".

Promoting familial strength and social health was another issue Clark pursued with vigour. He and Mamie founded the Northside Child Development Center in Harlem in 1946 and Haryou, Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, in the 1960s to aid juvenile delinquents.

Clark expanded his portfolio of strategies by creating in the mid-1960s Marc, the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, a think-tank of academics using "rational and ethical methods to influence public policy". Later he helped found in the early 1970s the JCPS, the Joint Center for Political Studies, to assist the nation's first cadres of black elected officials.

Toward the end of his career, Clark conceded that he was disappointed with the persistence of de facto segregation and inferior education for many blacks. When I visited him in the mid-1970s seeking insights for studying black communities in Britain, he confided that he had seriously underestimated the severity of racism. It was wishful thinking to believe that the majority of whites were looking for a way out of the morass of segregation, he said.

According to Dr Henry Tomes, executive director of the American Psychological Association (APA), Clark's legacy is considered to be up there with the giants of psychology Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.

In 1970 Clark was the first black president of the APA and last year 20 APA psychologists honoured him in Racial Identity in Context: the legacy of Kenneth B. Clark, saying that "his social action research broke new ground in race relations theory".

Thomas L. Blair

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