Helen Walters

2004 by Helen Walters. All Rights Reserved

April 19, 2004


 The Brown v. Board of Education Case, Social Science, and the Reality of Racism


            The Brown v. Board of Education case broke new ground not only in what it argued, but in how it was argued. The argument against segregation in schools relied heavily on the consideration of "intangible" factors, and on social science research as proof of the psychological damage that black individuals experienced under segregation. The notion of psychological damage and its relationship to law has been explored more recently via the use of narrative as a means of communicating the intangible factors that previously came to light in the Brown v. Board of Education case.


I. The Argument for Intangible Factors

            In the Brown v. Board of Education case, the court ruled that segregated school systems denied black children the "equal protection of the law" they were guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment. In order to argue that segregation denied equal protection of the law, it needed to be proven that the "separate but equal" element of segregation was never truly equal, even when "tangible" factors such as buildings, curricula, and teacher qualifications could be made equal (Opinion 3).

            The argument for intangible factors referred back to Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, two cases in which segregation in higher education was judged unequally. Sweatt v. Painter found that a segregated law school did not provide equal educational opportunity based on "those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school" (ibid.). The McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents case took into account intangible considerations when it was required that a black man admitted to a white graduate school be treated like all other students in "...his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession." Having been judged as a legal necessity for adults, the intangible considerations of what represented a quality education would be even more important for children in school.

            However, the "intangible factors" in the Brown v. Board of Ed. case were harder to prove than in either Sweatt or MacLaurin. The Sweatt case dealt with law schools, which were measured by the reputation of either the faculty or the student body, whereas public primary and secondary schools were not (Scott, 135). McLaurin involved blacks and whites being segregated within the same school, and the act of being treated differently from one's peers was what caused the intangible inequality (ibid.). In the Brown v. Board of Education case, it had to be proven that the act of separating black and white children into separate schools created an intangible inequality. The argument here was that it was the separation of black and white children that implied black inferiority. In order to demonstrate the inequality of "intangible" factors that stemmed from segregation, opponents of segregation made novel use of social science research regarding what happens when one racial group is implied to be inferior to another, and the negative impact that this has on the development of individuals.

Using Kenneth Clark's doll study as a primary piece of evidence, the court ruled that to separate children from others of similar age and qualifications solely based on race generated a feeling of inferiority as to the status of black children in the community that "may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone." The detrimental impact of segregation would be greater when it had the sanction of the law, because the policy of separation was usually seen as denoting the inferiority of the minority group. Segregation, then, was detrimental to the educational and mental development of black children, and deprived them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.


II. The Clark Study as Evidence

            The major piece of social science evidence brought before the court was Kenneth Clark's study that used white and black dolls to test racial awareness in children. Clark described one particular experiment involving sixteen African-American children between the ages of six and nine. The children were presented with white and black dolls that were identical in every way except skin color. The children were then asked a series of questions: which the doll they liked best, which doll was the "nice" doll, which doll looked "bad," which doll looked like a white child, which doll looked like a colored child, which doll looked like a Negro child, and which doll "looks like you" (Beggs 67).

            Ten out of sixteen children preferred the white doll, choosing it as the one they liked best. Ten out of sixteen children also chose the white doll as the "nice" doll, and eleven chose the black doll as the "bad" doll. These findings were consistent with results gained from testing over 300 children, and this was interpreted to mean that black children, by ages as young as seven or eight, have internalized negative stereotypes about their own group. Clark concluded that the children in his study, having been given inferior status in the society in which they lived, had been "definitely harmed in the development of their personalities."

            The Clark study was far from perfect. The existing research could not provide an answer as to whether psychological damage experienced by black children resulted from segregated schools rather than from families or everyday discrimination experienced elsewhere; in fact, evidence existed that black children in integrated schools experienced more psychological damage as a result of being looked down upon (Scott 137). Nonetheless, the Clark study opened up the courts to a discussion of psychological damage as legitimate grounds for legal action.


III. Expressing Racial Issues Through Narrative

            The psychological damage that can arise when one group is stigmatized as an undesirable "other" can be difficult to quantify or define. Narrative is one way in which "intangible" damages can be expressed. In more recent years, literature has further opened up the discussion of the effect of social stigma on individual development, and also of the social and legal issues surrounding racial inequality.

            In her novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison creates a picture of deep-seated racial shame in a little girl. Pecola, the main character, so internalizes white contempt for her blackness that she wishes to have blue eyes in order to feel accepted, pretty and loved. By her wish, Pecola wants to escape the dominant culture that sees her as a despised and inferior "other"(Bouson 41). Pecola's family, the Breedloves, is also victims of the contempt of the dominant white culture. They believe they are "relentlessly and aggressively ugly ... They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance."(Bouson 25) The contempt that the Breedloves were surrounded by their entire lives eventually destroys the structure of their family, leading to abuse, incest, and Pecola's mental breakdown. By creating a narrative with individual characters who suffer as a result of social stigma, Morrison implicitly argues that the potentially devastating effects of racism on individuals be confronted.

            Derrick Bell is a professor of law and another author who uses storytelling as a format for expressing the social reality of racism. Through fiction, Bell writes, he intended to reflect the "contradictions and dilemmas faced by those attempting to apply legal rules to the many forms of racial discrimination" (Bell 316). His story "Space Traders" presents a hypothetical situation where extraterrestrials offer the United States solutions to its fiscal, environmental, and energy problems; in return, they ask for all of the nation's black citizens. The fictional reactions of politicians, corporate leaders, religious leaders and minority groups to this hypothetical situation are a way of dramatizing real, persistent attitudes toward black people in America. In the story, politicians support the removal of black citizens and use manipulative rhetoric in order to make the removal of their rights sound patriotic; corporations, who make a profit off of black citizens, look out only for themselves; evangelists manipulate their congregations' biases and claim that the trade would be an act of God, and minority groups, such as Jewish leaders, who stand up for black rights are blacklisted, stigmatized and silenced. The presentation of such a hypothetical creates an involving persuasive argument, and requires the audience to consider how discriminatory attitudes are still existent in our society.

            The concept of narrative has a part in legal theory, such as with Patricia Williams's approach to understanding racial oppression through narrative. Williams argues that the language of law itself is too restrictive to allow for satisfactory discussion of racial issues. In her book The Alchemy of Race and Rights, she uses a variety of literary forms and states that "Noninterpretive devices, extrinsic sources, and intuitive means of reading may be the only ways to include the reality of the unwritten, unnamed, nontext of race" (Riles 782). Where the language of legal interpretation imposes order and categories, Williams writes, it does not account for individuals (Williams 8-9).

            Like the experimental evidence in the Brown v. Board of Ed case, the narrative approach aims to express the reality of racial inequality and its impact on individuals. While fictionalized and anecdotal evidence of discrimination is better able to express the nuance of individual experience and layers of social meaning, defining this reality in a legal context still remains a challenge.


Beggs, Gordon. "Novel Expert evidence in federal civil rights litigation." The American University Law Review, 45, 1995. excerpted at http://varenne.tc.columbia.edu/class/common/dolls_in_brown_vs_board.html


Bell, Derrick. "The Power of Narrative." Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 23 (3), 1999.


Bouson, Brooks J. Quiet As It's Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. State University of New York Press, 2000.


Opinion from US Supreme Court Case, quoted at The Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site: http://www.nps.gov/brvb/pages/decision54.htm


Riles, Annelise. "The Stories of Law." Harvard Law Review, Vol 105 (3), 1992.


Scott, Daryl Michael. "Justifying Equality: Damage Imagery and Brown v. Board of Education and the American Creed." Before Brown, Beyond Boundaries CD-ROM. Association for the Study of African American Life and History, 2004