The Doll Test for Racial Self-Hate: Did It Ever Make Sense?

Eleven facts about the controversial, often re-created experiment used in the landmark Brown v. Board desegregation case. 

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CNN's Anderson Cooper interviews children for a 2010 version of Kenneth and Maime Clark's doll test.

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The landmark 1954 civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education is credited with shutting down "separate but equal" education for African-American kids and paving the way for school integration. Its other legacy? The tradition of questioning small children about black and white dolls in order to measure their sentiments about race.

The "doll test," introduced as social science evidence in the lower-court cases that were rolled into Brown, and cited by the Supreme Court in support of its conclusion that segregation harmed the psyches of black children, got a national spotlight and secured its place in civil rights history. Sixty years later, the tool to measure kids' attitudes about what color has to do with being "pretty" or "good" (or "ugly" or "bad") is still widely used shorthand for the argument that anti-black racism is internalized—and early.

Who came up with the doll test, and how did it make its way into that famous footnote in Brown—and not to mention six decades of conversations about race? And was it ever really good science? Here are 11 facts about the controversial, oft-repeated experiment.

1. The doll test was created based on a black female psychologist's Howard University master's thesis. 

In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth Bancroft Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, designed it to study the effects of segregation on black children, in an experiment based on Maime's Howard University master's thesis. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund came across a paper that Kenneth wrote on the findings and asked the Clarks to provide expert testimony in the state cases that provided the basis for Brown, in support of the LDF's argument that segregation harmed black kids.

2. It was very simple.

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Kenneth Clark conducting the “doll test” with a young male child in 1947

Gordon Parks/Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Clarks used diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color. They showed them to black children between the ages of 3 and 7. When asked which they preferred and which was "nice" and "pretty," versus "ugly" and "bad," the majority of the kids attributed positive characteristics to the white doll.

3. Not everyone on the NAACP team was on board with using it in the courtroom ...

In In Brown's Wake: Legacies of America's Educational Landmark, Harvard law professor Martha Minow reports that, according to observers, LDF attorney Spottswood Robinson "thought it was crazy and insulting to persuade a court of law with examples of crying children and dolls," and his colleague William Thaddeus Coleman was heard commenting, "Jesus Christ! Those damned dolls."

4. ... But Thurgood Marshall insisted.

Marshall, the architect of the LDF's school-desegregation legal strategy, recalled in 1977, "I went to the basic principle that if you had an automobile accident and you are 'injured,' you have to prove your injuries ... so I said, 'These Negro kids are damaged; we will have to prove it.' Everybody said, 'You're crazy.' I said, 'How can you prove it?' "

5. And ultimately, the Supreme Court went for it.

In the Brown decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren specifically cited Kenneth Clark's summary of all the social science testimony—on topics including the doll test —presented at trial. In the portion of the opinion on the effect of segregation on black children, Warren wrote, "To separate 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 to ever be undone."

6. But the doll test wasn't actually pivotal to the decision.

The doll studies, while salient to many observers, in fact played a modest role in the evidentiary base for the litigation, according to Minow. This subject was only one part—and not the largest—of Clark’s testimony in Brown. And the decision mentioned the test findings only in a footnote.

7. In fact, there are a lot of questions about what the findings actually meant.

According to Kenneth Clark's analysis, the doll studies were relevant in that they showed how racial segregation interfered with students' personality development. But Harvard law professor Lani Guinier has noted (pdf) that the Clarks' conclusions failed to consider that black students with high degrees of contact with whites could very possibly have experienced even greater distress over their racial stigma than their counterparts in segregated communities. Plus, plenty of commentators have pointed out that the experiment included a small sample size and no control group.

8. Sill, the doll test survived—and thrived. But it has since been used to measure attitudes about race unrelated to segregation.

The experiment has been re-created time after time. In 2006 a similar study showed African-American children still labeling a black doll "bad." The Final Call labeled the results "ugly." ABC did it in 2009, and CNN's Anderson Cooper played the role of the Clarks in 2010, administering a doll test for a national audience. No longer used in debates about integration, the results of the contemporary test are frequently cited to anchor comments about the effects on black kids of living in a racist society.

9. Contemporary psychologists say that black kids have gotten better and white kids have stayed the same.

Psychologist Margaret Beale Spencer re-created a questionnaire version of the doll test in 2010 for CNN and found that while there was a "white bias" in both black and white kids, the bias was much less in the black kids. In other words, says Dr. Welansa Asrat, a New York-based specialist in cross-cultural psychiatry, "The black kids' self-perception has improved since the 1940s, while the white kids' remained invested in the stereotypes."

10. Today, psychology has better tools for measuring attitudes about race.

The modern method of assessing attitudes on race is the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, which tests unconscious bias. According to a recent study, 70 percent of whites have an anti-black bias, as do 50 percent of blacks, says Asrat.

11. The idea that integration is a solution to individual anti-black bias has largely been dropped.

"Society's anti-black bias can be effectively counteracted with a pro-black bias," Asrat explains. "In psychiatry, we talk about risk factors for particular disorders. However, there are also protective factors that can minimize or diminish the impact of the risk factors. Exposure to anti-black bias is a risk for internalized racism and low self-esteem. However, a pro-black identity can protect against that risk."

Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

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