A prominent victory in the Civil Rights Movement was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling, which ended racial segregation in American public schools. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed to overturn the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson “separate but equal” ruling, and this decision paved the road for large-scale desegregation.
NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall used data and research to help build a strong case that African Americans were treated as inferior and inherently unequal, which violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. African American psychologists Kenneth B. Clark, PhD and Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD greatly contributed to this argument with their research on African American children’s racial identifications and preferences.
Clark and Clark showed black and white dolls to African American preschool and elementary students, asked them to choose which doll they liked better, and which looked most like them. They also asked the children to color pictures of children with a color that most closely resembled the color of the children’s skin.
They found that the African American students frequently preferred the white doll and picture, and often colored the picture of the child with a shade lighter than their own skin. Samples of their responses indicated a perspective of black as ugly and bad and white as pretty and good. The researchers concluded that many African children at the time of the study (1939-1950) showed a preference for white and some of the children had conflicting emotions when asked to choose a preferred color. They also concluded that African American children, by the age of five, recognized the inferior status of being African American, and that these children, by the ages of six to eight years of age, accepted the negative stereotypes about their own race.
The disturbing outcomes of this research clearly illustrated the damage that segregation and discrimination had on African Americans, and is a great example of how research can not only inform policy, but can help improve the the lives of millions. Chief Justice Earl Warren, one of the supreme court justices responsible for the favorable ruling, recognized Clark and Clark as one of the “modern authorities” which influenced their decision. This decision was important not only for its great contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, but it was also the first time that psychological research was cited in a Supreme Court decision and recognized as paramount in informing the decision.