In the latter half of the 1960s, with the nation’s eyes on unrest in its cities, there arose a role for African American intellectuals in helping white America to understand black urban life. As Daniel Matlin details in On the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis, these “indigenous interpreters” were left to balance the opportunities afforded by their prominence with the dilemmas and demands of their perceived social obligations. Among them was psychologist Kenneth B. Clark—born one hundred years ago this week—who became known as an establishment figure committed to an integrationist approach to solving the urban crises of the post-civil rights era. However, as Matlin explains below, Clark’s public acceptance of that role both concealed and constrained his sense of race as “merely one manifestation of a much deeper set of problems that confront human beings.”
Civil rights anniversaries abound this year. Media interest has centered on the Civil Rights Act signed into law by Lyndon Johnson fifty years ago, but the summer of 1964 also witnessed the Harlem Riot, an event that inaugurated years of urban uprisings which broke any illusion that America’s racial divisions had been laid to rest. It was sixty years ago that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education shattered the legal foundations underpinning segregation. And one hundred years ago, on July 14, 1914, the scholar whose name became inextricably entwined with that landmark legal victory was born to Jamaican parents in the Panama Canal Zone.
Histories of the civil rights movement testify to Kenneth B. Clark’s vital contribution in coordinating the expert psychological testimony cited in the Brown ruling. Segregated schools, the Court was persuaded, stigmatized and harmed black children by their very nature, regardless of whether white and black schools were equally resourced. The famous “doll tests” through which Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark—like him, a psychologist trained at Howard and Columbia Universities—had exposed black children’s marked preference for white dolls still provides perhaps the most graphic and abiding image of the interior, emotional costs of institutionalized white supremacy.
Clark, who died in 2005, remains for historians a “symbol of integrationism,” the civil rights movement’s “reigning academic,” and “the epitome of the establishment social scientist” during the Kennedy-Johnson era of liberal reform. His credentials as a pillar of the postwar liberal establishment are plain to see. A tenured professor at the City College of New York, Clark served as an expert witness before courts and congressional committees and at White House conferences, fraternized with politicians and their advisers, and secured federal and municipal grants to support his research and activism. Those credentials, and his aura of respectability, were only underlined in 1969 when Clark was elected to serve as the first black president of the American Psychological Association, one of the nation’s largest professional bodies.
And yet, the remarkable controversy that ensued during Clark’s presidency is a forgotten story—one that casts his life and thought in a dramatically different light, and reveals much about the pressures and dilemmas that have confronted generations of African American intellectuals. On September 4, 1971, at the end of his term of office, Clark rose to deliver his presidential address at the APA’s annual convention in Washington, D.C. Within days, he had been ridiculed in the national press, denounced by many of his academic peers, and censured by the vice president of the United States.
“I didn’t deliberately choose to devote my life to the problems of race, and perhaps I’d like to escape it.”
How had it come to this? Clark’s extraordinary speech was rooted in deep disillusionment. The hopes he had invested in America’s liberal leadership had dissolved into a bitter fatalism about politics, and his own encounters with political leadership in the 1960s offer a disturbing microhistory of that decade. But his address to his fellow psychologists was also an act of rebellion against the limitations, presumptions, and obligations he believed had structured and dominated his career and those of other black scholars. “I didn’t deliberately choose to devote my life to the problems of race,” Clark had told an interviewer in 1965, “and perhaps I’d like to escape it.”
Today, growing numbers of African American scholars work in fields ostensibly unrelated to “race,” but the numbers remain relatively small. Figures from 2007, for example, show that just 2.5 percent of academic staff in science and engineering at America’s top 50 research institutions were black. Moreover, it remains the case, as the Yale historian Jonathan Scott Holloway wrote a few years ago, that black intellectuals in the United States are “heard best when speaking to blackness.”
Those who are admitted into the ranks of America’s public intellectuals—invited to address a broad audience by newspaper and magazine editors, trade publishers, and television producers—have almost always established their public profiles by addressing what Clark called “the topic that is reserved for blacks.” A powerful sense of responsibility, as well as the expectations of white-dominated media, continues to shape and constrain the space in which black intellectuals operate. The conditions which prompted Clark’s outburst in 1971 still prevail.
In his centenary year, it is time to meet the unknown Kenneth B. Clark.
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If Brown cemented Clark’s place in history, his involvement in the NAACP’s legal campaign proved to be just one manifestation of his commitment to tether his work as a psychologist to the pursuit of social justice. It was during the 1960s that Clark became a recognizable figure to many Americans, as a commentator frequently called upon to explain the new surge of black urban unrest and rising demands for “black power.” Publishers, editors, and other cultural gatekeepers turned to a number of black intellectuals to act as indigenous interpreters of black urban life to the American public, combining their personal, experiential insights as “racial insiders” with the authority of the social sciences or the poignancy of the arts.
Clark embraced this role, believing he was well placed to bridge the gulf of empathy that had opened between white liberals and urban African Americans as outbreaks of violence tore up the southern movement’s carefully constructed image of respectability. From 1962 to 1964, with federal and New York City funding grants, Clark had designed and led a huge investigation into social and psychological conditions in Harlem, and created a blueprint for the major antipoverty initiative Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, known as HARYOU.
In his book Dark Ghetto, published in 1965 and partially serialized in the New York Post, he addressed the findings of that investigation to a general audience. Having grown up in Harlem, Clark explained, he brought the personal perspective of a long-time “prisoner within the ghetto” to bear on the cold statistics of poverty, malnutrition, housing deprivation, infant mortality, educational failure, police brutality, criminality, and addiction that were the “objective” characteristics of ghetto experience. He wished to convey the “subjective” dimensions of the lives from which those statistics were extracted, namely “resentment, hostility, despair, apathy, self-deprecation, and its ironic companion, compensatory grandiose behavior.”
The ambitious scale of Clark’s design for HARYOU—calling for a $110 million rejuvenation of the neighborhood’s schools, pre-schooling, adult education, job training, and drug rehabilitation programs, together with an infrastructure for community organizing and community control of social services—was fuelled by the Johnson administration’s announcement of a federal War on Poverty. As the Economic Opportunity Act made its way through Congress in 1964, with its commitment to fund local “community action programs” involving the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor, Clark believed that the Johnson administration had endorsed the principles at the heart of his HARYOU blueprint, notably the commitment to empower residents of poor communities by involving them in policymaking and stimulating neighborhood activism.
What Clark’s moderate image and his faith in liberal politicians have long concealed is the surprisingly radical therapeutics that underlay all of his work.
For Clark, empowerment of the oppressed was fundamental not only to positive social change, but also to the achievement of psychological health on the part of marginalized, stigmatized groups. What Clark’s moderate image and his faith in liberal politicians have long concealed is the surprisingly radical therapeutics that underlay all of his work. Like the Martinician psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, whose book The Wretched of the Earth was beloved of black power activists, Clark believed that only active rebellion against injustice would, in Fanon’s phrase, “free the native from his inferiority complex.” He did not, of course, join Fanon in advocating violence against the oppressor as a psychologically “cleansing force.” But he did see in the Harlem Riot evidence of a “strength to rebel,” an energy that could be channeled into nonviolent, socially regenerative forms.
There was, though, a fateful contradiction between Clark’s radical therapeutics and the faith in liberal government on which his HARYOU design rested. As the journalist Charles Silberman spotted in 1964, “maximum feasible participation” of the poor was, in reality, bound to be minimal. “No government,” Silberman wrote, “no matter how liberal, is going to stimulate creation of a power organization that is sure to make its life uncomfortable.” A year earlier, Clark had written that “some of the young people with whom HARYOU seeks to work” had themselves questioned whether the federal government could really be committed to such a “drastic…design for social change.” Clark’s “only answer” was that HARYOU’s philosophy “has not been hidden from our present, nor will be from our future, sources of support.”
The young people were wiser than Clark knew. Within months of the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, mayors and other city politicians were in open revolt against the imposition of community action programs that involved decision making or agitation on the part of the poor. “Maximum feasible participation” threatened existing political power bases and patronage networks, and was quickly supplanted by traditional bureaucratic models of social service provision. One of the earliest casualties of this process was Clark’s vision for HARYOU.
As Clark told a conference in 1964, “the HARYOU programs have at their core the attempt to mobilize the potential power of the people themselves for social action.” Such notions brought Clark into direct conflict with Harlem’s charismatic congressman and major powerbroker, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Powell was less than enthused by the prospect of neighborhood mobilization developing outside his carefully honed political machine. By 1964, he was pressuring Clark to merge HARYOU, at the point when it would become operational, with a local youth employment program called ACT (Associated Community Teams) that was run by his own allies. The operational management of HARYOU-ACT, Powell explained to Clark, would be directed by Livingstone Wingate—who happened to be Powell’s former congressional aide.
For Clark, who regarded Powell as part of a cynical and exploitative ghetto power structure, such a merger was bound to neutralize any meaningful empowerment of Harlem’s residents. Unfortunately for Clark, Powell chaired the congressional committee through which the antipoverty legislation and any appropriations to HARYOU would have to pass. Nevertheless, Clark believed he could draw on his good standing with attorney general Robert F. Kennedy and his staff to create pressure for Powell to back down. In an interview in 1976, Clark recalled that Powell had smilingly disabused him of any such hopes. With Kennedy planning his run for election as U.S. Senator from New York, Powell explained, a conflict with Harlem’s congressman would be the last thing on Kennedy’s mind. Powell was right. As Clark reflected, Powell “very directly and explicitly thought to give me lessons in the realities of power.”
Clark was quickly forced out of the organization he had founded. A year after HARYOU-ACT came into being, the neighborhood boards that had been central to Clark’s vision of community mobilization had strangely failed to materialize. Over the following years, Clark watched with deepening dismay as the federal government retreated from its commitment to the War on Poverty and escalated the war in Vietnam. The increasingly brutal, militarized suppression of the urban riots of the late 1960s prompted dark reflections from Clark that America’s ghettos were “concentration camps.” Noting Harlem’s rising suicide rate, he told colleagues in 1967: “It seems as if America has found the trick to get Negroes to kill themselves so that they can stand before the world as superior to the German Nazis.” He added, “If I sound bitter, it is only because I am.”
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Clark’s election to the APA presidency in 1969 was a welcome validation from his professional community after his bruising experiences in Harlem. But almost immediately, he began to worry about the presidential address he would deliver at the end of his term. “I was full of anxiety about it,” he remembered a few years later. When, eventually, he showed a draft of the speech to two close colleagues, both warned him that he would be “clobbered.” They were not wrong.
Standing before the assembled ranks of the nation’s psychologists, Clark made an astonishing claim. “All power-controlling leaders,” he argued, should be required to “accept and use the earliest perfected form of psychotechnological, biochemical intervention which would assure their positive use of power and block the possibility of their using power destructively.” Little wonder that vice president Spiro Agnew took offense. After the New York Times reported the speech on its front page under the headline “Kenneth Clark Asks New Drugs to Curb Hostility of Leaders,” columnists and editorial-writers enjoyed a field day. Clark, according to New York’s Daily News, wished to turn humans “into two-legged vegetables—turnips, possibly.” Four prominent academics, including Herbert Kelman, professor of social ethics at Harvard, issued a joint statement condemning Clark for seeking a “quick technological fix” for complex problems of human psychology.
What is striking about the speech Clark delivered is not only its abrupt and disturbing prescription, but also the rationale Clark offered for his advocacy of an “era of psychotechnology.” The invention of nuclear weaponry, he explained, “confronts us with the fact that it is now possible to destroy the human species through the nonadaptive use of human intelligence and the destructive, pathetic use of social power.” Religion, philosophy, education, and law had seemed adequate tools for controlling human destructiveness in a “prenuclear age,” but were wholly inadequate now that the technology of war magnified exponentially the devastation that could be wrought by irrational or “barbaric” acts. Only the development of drugs to counteract “negative and primitive behavioral tendencies” would assure human survival, he insisted.
Clark had long been a sponsor of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. Yet nuclear geopolitics had never been a focus of his research, and the move toward détente since the late 1960s, while hardly eliminating the nuclear threat, made its centrality to Clark’s speech more surprising still. As sincere as his concerns about nuclear warfare may have been, there were other factors behind his warnings of impending societal self-destruction.
It was Clark’s own, direct encounters with political power that had crushed his hopes most profoundly, condemning his vision of a transformation of Harlem and the nation’s other “dark ghettos.”
Johnson’s military escalation and Richard Nixon’s arrival in the White House had both dented Clark’s faith in America’s political leadership after his optimism of the early 1960s. Yet it was Clark’s own, direct encounters with political power—the “lessons” administered by Powell and, indirectly, Robert Kennedy—that had crushed his hopes most profoundly, condemning his vision of a transformation of Harlem and the nation’s other “dark ghettos.” Beneath the Johnson administration’s rhetoric of “daring innovative liberalism,” he wrote in 1969, was the reality that “canny political leadership—national and city—never intended fundamental societal reorganization.” There was to be no “serious sharing of power.”
Clark had hoped, through his role as an indigenous interpreter, to engender a new wave of public empathy for the black urban poor that would redouble the federal commitment to address their “powerlessness.” In a revealing choice of metaphor, he had written in the New York Times Magazine in 1965 that “The dark ghettos now represent a nuclear stockpile that can annihilate the very foundations of America.” By the late 1960s, it was clear to him that such metaphors had failed to have the intended effect.
If his warnings about the inhumanity of the ghettos and their threat to social stability had not worked, then what would? A literal, rather than metaphorical, nuclear holocaust was a threat nobody could feel immune from. Had Clark been concerned solely with the small number of world leaders whose fingers hovered over nuclear buttons, he would not have told reporters, immediately after his presidential address, that psychotechnological regulation should be administered to every politician, from the President down to “the man aspiring to be a city councilman in Ward 8.” Though Clark spoke of nuclear destruction, Harlem, surely, was on his mind.
Yet there is a further, equally significant reason why Clark grounded his argument for psychotechnology in the nuclear threat, rather than the injustice of ghettoization. As he recalled in 1976, he had decided soon after his election that he would use his presidential address to talk “in general terms” about “psychology as an instrument for social change.” He also believed “that almost everyone wanted me, or was expecting me to talk about it in terms of race. And I knew that I was not going to talk about it in terms of race, because, to me, race was merely one manifestation of a much deeper set of problems that confront human beings.”
Any reckoning with Clark’s extraordinary performance at the APA convention must grapple with his painful experience of black intellectual life. At Columbia University in the late 1930s, Clark’s decision to pursue his doctorate in social psychology had entailed a difficult choice to abandon his deepest intellectual passion: neurophysiology. As he explained in 1976, “I couldn’t afford it, in terms of being black, and being concerned with problems of social and racial justice. I couldn’t afford the luxury of doing what I really wanted to do in psychology—namely, know more about the brain and the nervous system, and how they affected behavior.” One road pointed toward intellectual freedom, the other toward his deep sense of responsibility to the race. He chose social psychology. But he thought often of the road not taken.
Among Clark’s papers in the Library of Congress is a transcript of a conversation that took place just seven months before his presidential address. In the course of a discussion about public education, Jeanette Hopkins, who had edited Dark Ghetto for Harper & Row, asked Clark to elucidate his “philosophy as a whole.” Clark immediately replied that he had none. “A black man in America cannot afford the large perspective.” Clark could “only afford to fight just one struggle at a time.” He had “no thought as a whole.”
“I’m tired of civil rights. Maybe I should try to develop some ideas concerning the enormous waste of human intelligence sacrificed to the struggle for racial justice in America.”
Six years earlier, in January 1965, Clark had penned a letter of acceptance on learning that he had won the Kurt Lewin Memorial Award for his achievements in using psychology to promote social change. News of the award “literally floored me,” Clark wrote, and he thanked his colleagues warmly. But his letter continued: “I’m tired of civil rights. Maybe I should try to develop some ideas concerning the enormous waste of human intelligence sacrificed to the struggle for racial justice in America… Obviously I am proud and happy that my colleagues believe my work merits this award. On the other hand, I must be honest and share my feelings and anxiety that so much of my work has been restricted to the idiotic question of racial justice.”
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In presenting psychotechnology as a response to a universal threat facing humankind, Clark rebelled against the constraints of his role as an indigenous interpreter, and against the powerful sense of racial responsibility that had determined the course of his career. By speaking of regulating the biochemical environment of the brain, instead of the social environment of the individual or community, he reneged, however fleetingly, on the decision he had made more than thirty years earlier to forsake neurophysiology for social psychology because of “being black.”
Yet the nature of his rebellion speaks only too vividly of his sense of loss. Black intellectuals, to a far greater extent than their peers, continue to face the pressures and expectations of racial responsibility, representation, and authenticity. In his centenary year, let’s remember what Kenneth B. Clark achieved—and at what cost.