Black History is Now
Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on February 14, 2007
For that group, February is a time to remember and regret how bad things used to be and to celebrate a few of the household-name heroes who helped expose and reform the deep and blatant racism of our past. Though some of the racist practices are still quite fresh — gruesome lynchings, hateful Ku Klux Klan rituals, law enforcement officers unlatching fire hoses, unharnessing billyclubs, and unleashing police dogs on civil rights activists — the “history was then” crowd finds those images both disgusting and reassuring. Look how far we’ve come.
One psychology experiment — commonly called the “doll test” — famously illustrates those bad-old days. In the mid-1950s the wife-and-husband team, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, asked black children, ages three to seven, a series of questions about some plastic baby dolls that were identical except for color. The responses brought a latent reality into black-and-white relief. Ten of sixteen of the young black children preferred the white dolls to the black dolls. Furthermore, they attributed more positive characteristics (e.g., “good” and “nice”) to the white dolls. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred.
Soon thereafter, those disturbing findings would help to shift public policy and interpretation of the law. Indeed, they figured prominently in several legal cases, the most important of which was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
In that landmark case, which examined Jim Crow’s “separate but equal” public-school education system, the U.S. Supreme Court was presented with this fundamental question: “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?” The Justices’ unanimous answer of “yes” depended significantly on the argument that state-enforced separation denotes inferiority which is internalized by the students to their detriment. The doll test was offered as evidence of that dynamic.
The “history was then” contingent would, we suspect, gasp at the results of the doll test and then point to Brown v. Board as evidence of how the laws, not to mention our customs and sensibilities, have all changed since 1954.
That was then, and this now. Look whose running for President! Look whose coaching head-to-head in the Super Bowl! Look at Oprah and Tiger — they are so famous and beloved, not to mention wealthy, we can dispense with their last names. No longer is “black” somehow “inferior.” The doll test is interesting today as a milemarker of the distance we’ve come in just fifty years.
But there is another, less common way to view history. Some look to it as if it were a mirror — a means of getting a different and potentially more accurate perspective on ourselves today. The presumption of this “history is now” approach is simple: the shortcomings of those who went before us are probably to be found in one form or another in ourselves. As Arthur Lovejoy put it: “The adequate record of even the confusions of our forebears may help, not only to clarify those confusions, but to engender a salutary doubt whether we are wholly immune from different but equally great confusions.”
Kiri Davis, a seventeen-year-old student at Manhattan’s Urban Academy, falls into the “history is now” camp. Like Kenneth and Mamie Clark five decades earlier, Davis has publicly documented how progress is often more imagined than real. In her award-winning documentary, “A Girl Like Me (2006),” Davis recorded how she duplicated the Clarks’ doll test among young girls in Harlem.
Davis became interested in the project–which has drawn the praise of many, including Deborah Archer over at BlackProf–when she, like many teenagers, came to understand that beauty is not only skin deep, it is tone sensitive.
Davis didn’t come to that hypothesis through reading the relevant social scientific literature, which we will touch on below. Small talk among friends made explicit what they all knew without asking: the lighter and whiter a person’s skin tone, and the straighter and “less kinky” her hair, the more attractive she is. Davis was deeply discouraged by these conversations, but realized that pressing the point would be difficult because the subject of “blackness” is often, as she put it, “too taboo to talk about,” even in the black community. She also observed that trying to dissuade her friends of their thinking was fruitless since, “[y]ou could tell these people about the standards of beauty that are forced on young girls all you want to. But they won’t get it until you show them.”
So, “show[ing] them” was what she set out to do. Davis replicated Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s famous study, and observed the very same behavior in her subjects: a majority of young black girls regarding white dolls as prettier and more likeable than black dolls. History is now.
No doubt cases like Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement generally represented significant strides toward a more just and equitable society. Unfortunately however, much of the progress was either short-lived or illusory. Consider this excerpt from Davis’ study, as reported by Hazel Trice Edney of the Baltimore Times:
The reassuring female voice asks the child a
question: “Can you show me the doll that looks bad?”
The child, a preschool-aged Black girl, quickly picks up and shows the Black doll over a White one that is identical in every respect except complexion.
“And why does that look bad?
“Because she’s Black,” the little girl answers emphatically.
“And why is this the nice doll?” the voice continues.
“Because she’s White.”
“And can you give me the doll that looks like you?”
The little girl hesitates for a split second before handing over the Black doll that she has just designated as the uglier one.
Unfortunately, Kiri Davis’s compelling video is barely a drop in the bucket of evidence that social scientists have amassed indicating the continued influence of robust race-based stereotypes and prejudices. Worse still, the evidence is that those beliefs and feelings are not limited to children’s attitudes toward dolls or to the beauty sense of teenagers. They are ubiquitous. And here may be the worst part: whatever our conscious or explicit attitudes and intentions, today’s social psychologists have discovered a set of biases that operate beneath the radar of those salient, accessible, and misleading cognitive features.
Such attitudes, sometimes called “implicit associations,” have been uncovered, for instance, through an internet-based experiment called the implicit association test (or IAT) that in some ways resembles the Clarks’ famous doll test — only in a way that does not defer to our express attitudes. (Among others, two Contributors to The Situationist, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nozek, have been integral in developing the methodology and analyzing the meaning of its results. And among legal scholars, two other Contributors to The Situationist, Jerry Kang and Linda Hamilton Krieger, have been especially active in exploring the possible implications of those results for particular areas of law.)
In the Race IAT, subjects take a timed test in which they are shown a computer screen and asked to match positive words (love, wonderful, peace) or negative words (evil, nasty, failure) with faces of African-Americans or Whites. Very roughly, subjects who take less time to link positive words with Whites and more time to link positive words with Blacks—or who are quicker at connecting negative words with Blacks and slower at connecting negative words with Whites—demonstrate an implicit bias for white faces or against Blacks. You can take the test yourself by clicking here. Millions of people have. And, among other findings, the IAT test reveals that approximately three-quarters of White subjects and half of the Black subjects show such a bias. Think of this as the post-PC example of the doll test. History is now.
But wait a minute. If the bias is only implicit and subconscious, how important can it be? Here, too, the news is bad. Although the research is by now piled high and the findings, at time complex, the results can be fairly summarized as follows: implicit bias influences behavior in the way that we assume (often incorrectly) explicit attitudes do. Put differently, the “attitudes” that we do not perceive in ourselves are often more powerful in shaping our conduct than are the attitudes of which we are conscious — situation eclipses disposition.
Other research illustrates that the distinctions made among various shades of “gray,” the issue motivating Kiri Davis, have important behavioral consequences for adults. For instance, Elizabeth Klonoff and Hope Landrine‘s study “Is Skin Color a Marker for Racial Discrimination” found that “dark-skinned Blacks were 11 times more likely to experience frequent racial discrimination than their light-skinned counterparts.” Similarly, Rodolfo Espino and Michael M. Franz‘s study “Latino Phenotypic Discrimination Revisited: The Impact of Skin Color on Occupational Status” finds that “dark-skinned Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans continue to face higher levels of discrimination in the labor market.”
One recent, remarkable study strikes us as particularly revealing regarding the life-and-death significance of “blackness.” Jennifer Eberhardt, Paul Davies, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, and Sheri Lynn Johnson, found a disturbing correlation between how prototypically “black” a death-eligible criminal defendant was and whether that defendant was sentenced to death. Eberhardt’s website summarizes the research this way:
The vast majority of studies designed to examine the influence of race in capital punishment have found that murderers of White victims are much more likely than murderers of Black victims to be sentenced to death. Drawing from an extensive database compiled by David Baldus, she and her colleagues obtained the photographs of Black defendants who were death eligible in Philadelphia from 1979 to 1999. She presented the faces of Black defendants who had killed White victims to naive participants (who did not know that the photographs depicted convicted murders) and asked them to rate each face on how stereotypically Black it appeared. The effect of stereotypicality was clear. Whereas only 24% of the defendants rated as less stereotypically Black received a death sentence, 58% of the defendants rated as more stereotypically Black received a death sentence. This stereotypicality effect was significant even when controlling for defendant attractiveness and the most significant non-racial factors known to influence sentencing (i.e., aggravating or mitigating circumstances, murder severity, defendant socioeconomic status, and victim socioeconomic status).
It seems that jurors view criminal defendants in very much the same way that young children see dolls. White is good. Black is bad. Very black is very bad.
To paraphrase Cornell West, race still matters and history is a fundamental lens for seeing what we would otherwise like to deny. In West’s words, “[a] fully functional multiracial society cannot be achieved without a sense of history and open, honest dialogue.” History is now.
(Later this month, we will come back to this topic in another post to explore other differences and tensions that seem to exist between the “black history is then” and the “black history is now” camps. To view articles that we have written on the connection of historical racial disparities to current racial disparities, click here and here.)