How Mamie and Kenneth Clark used dolls to overturn school segregation laws

Famed doll test broke new ground in exploration of race

In preparing for the Brown case of 1954, black lawyers reached out to psychologists to determine how black kids felt about themselves. The result was the Doll Test, which 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. The test measured 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. (Video by Ryon Horne, Ernie Suggs/AJC)

A version of this story originally ran on Feb. 1, 2019, as part of our Black History Month Series. This year, because of how this subject played in the psyche and mental health of Black children, we are re-publishing it as part of our 2022 Black History Month focus on Health and Wellness.

It can be argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that overturned the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” is one of the most monumental decisions in the history of American jurisprudence.

So how was the case assisted by dolls?

Years before NAACP Legal Defense attorney Thurgood Marshall eloquently argued the case before the Supreme Court, Mamie and Kenneth Clark, a husband-and-wife team of African-American social psychologists, conducted groundbreaking psychological experiments on children in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Clarks had devoted their life’s work to understanding the impact of racial biases. The prevailing legal opinion at the time was that public facilities and schools that were racially “separate but equal” were constitutional. The Clarks sought to challenge that mindset by testing whether African-American children were psychologically and emotionally damaged by attending segregated schools.

Known as “doll tests,” black children were placed in a room with two dolls before them — one black and one white.

The children were asked a series of questions:

Which doll is pretty? Which doll is ugly? Which doll is bad? Which doll is good? Which doll do you want to play with?

Finally, they were asked to identify the doll that looked most like them. Kenneth Clark revealed later that some of the children stormed out of the room and became “emotionally upset at having to identify with the doll that they had rejected.”

Overwhelmingly, these black children, the product of segregated schools and environments, showed a preference for dolls with white skin.

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark (shown here in 1965) and his wife, Mamie Clark, were psychologists who developed the “doll study” to explore self-identification in black children. Associated Press

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Sigrid Y. Elston, a licensed psychologist who studied the doll tests while getting her doctorate at the University of Georgia, said it is inconceivable how influential the study was in showing the impact of segregation and how it harmed the psyche of black children.

“In measuring children’s attitudes about color and the thoughts, images and perceptions associated with certain colors, it is very clear. Color plays a certain role and it is amazing how early kids start to pick up on it,” Elston said. “As early as (racial segregation) is introduced, you notice that (white children) get the better things. Better books. Better schools.”

The Clarks offered the results as proof of the pernicious effects of segregation. They wrote that even before the children could fully articulate their feelings about race, they were already damaged by a sense of inferiority.

“These children saw themselves as inferior and they accepted the inferiority as part of reality,” Kenneth Clark said. “Color in a racist society was a very disturbing and traumatic component of an individual’s sense of his own self-esteem and worth.”

Yet the Clarks were so upset by the heartbreaking results that they delayed publishing their conclusions.

When the NAACP and Marshall learned of the Clarks’ experiments — Mamie Clark had done work within the civil rights movement — they asked the couple to replicate the tests in Clarendon County, S.C., as part of a case that would eventually be rolled into Brown v. Board of Education.

Marshall dismissed concerns that the justices would be offended by the inclusion of the doll tests, and legal scholars have argued about the ultimate impact of the tests on the court’s unanimous decision. But Chief Justice Earl Warren, in his opinion, wrote: “To separate (black children) 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.”

“These doll tests were something practical, something tangible for the public at large to grasp on it,” said Matt C. Pinsker, a professor of constitutional law at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It was not an abstract idea and it struck a chord with the American people that you have these innocent children who are showing through their own skin color the fallacy of separate but equal.”

Over the past few years, several psychologists and news organizations have tried to replicate the tests. The results often remained the same.