Black Dolls, White Dolls and the Desegregation of America's Public Schools 60 Years Ago

What do conceptions of beauty have to do with the desegregation of public schools?

More than you might think.

Sixty years ago this month, the Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional. In this historic ruling, the Court took the unusual step of invoking social science research -- rather than constitutional interpretation or legal precedent -- to overturn separate but equal. Recent findings in psychology convinced the justices that segregated schools "bred a sense of inferiority" among black children by reinforcing racial difference.

What is also remarkable -- though overlooked -- is how the politics of skin color informed that research and thus the Brown v. Board decision. Racialized conceptions of beauty played an unappreciated role in establishing that segregated schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.

The most famous evidence came from a report by African American psychologist Kenneth Clark summarizing a series of tests he had conducted with his wife Mamie. In the doll test, the Clarks presented African American children with four dolls. Two had white skin and blond hair; two had black skin and black hair. The Clarks asked the children to perform tasks designed to demonstrate an awareness of race and to show which race they preferred. Most children correctly identified the dolls' race as well as their own. The majority also expressed preference for the white dolls.

The prompts regarding preference demonstrated that the children, who ranged in age from three to seven, had already internalized the nation's dominant aesthetic hierarchy. Fifty-nine percent of the children said that the black doll "looked bad"; 17 percent said the white doll did; 24 percent did not know or gave no response. What it meant for the doll to look "bad" was, admittedly, unclear, as a child might interpret the word in terms of behavior or appearance.

Given the more pointed task of choosing the doll with the "nice color," however, 38 percent selected the black doll; 60 percent selected the white doll; and 2 percent did not know or gave no response. Some of the participants even employed aesthetic language in their unsolicited explanations for choosing the white doll. "Cause it's white -- it's pretty," said one child, or "cause he's not colored like these -- they the best looking cause they're white." The black dolls, on the other hand, were described as "ugly."

The southern children, in particular, justified their selection this way. Thirty-two percent of children from the South commented upon the prettiness of the white doll and the ugliness of the black doll. Among children from the North, only 10 percent did so.

Attractiveness, of course, was not just an issue of white over black. The Clarks' research revealed the effects of intraracial discrimination based on skin tone as well. Compared to children with medium to dark complexions, children with lighter skin were more likely to say that the black doll looked bad, that the white doll had a nice color, and that they would prefer to play with the white doll.

As expected, the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision has inspired an appraisal of our progress on desegregation, and the news is not encouraging: school resegregation has become the pattern in many parts of the country.

But it is also worth considering the fate of the beauty standards that were so prevalent back in 1954 and that, surprisingly, helped to abolish separate but equal. On this score, there are glimmers of hope. When, for instance, the U.S. Army in late March issued a new grooming policy that banned cornrows, twists and dreadlocks, hairstyles worn predominantly by black women, critics pointed out that the regulations are indebted to white beauty norms, prompting Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to order a review of the rules governing hair in all branches of the military. And in April, the dark-skinned, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o was named the new face of Lancome and People Magazine's Most Beautiful Person of 2014.

These small victories matter for Americans, black and white, old and especially young, for, as Kenneth and Mamie Clark proved decades ago, children learn their lessons at an early age.