Commentary Magazine


Prejudice and Personality

To The Editor:

As an admirer of both Kenneth Clark and Bruno Bettelheim, I should like to comment on the latter’s review of Clark’s Prejudice and Your Child (April issue), in which Bettelheim challenges Clark’s thesis that prejudice is harmful to the child’s personality. . . .

The disagreement seems to stem from differing conceptions of what is meant by personality, and such terms as “stability,” “adjustment,” “insecurity,” and possibly also the nature of psychological evidence. Bettelheim apparently regards personality as unrelated to any specific social context. Clark takes the point of view of the social psychologist. Bettelheim cites the historical Greek civilization and the Germany of his childhood as illustrations of how healthy personality may develop in what we would regard as an atmosphere of prejudice. However, we are concerned with the conflict between ideology and practice in contemporary American democratic culture which has been powerfully depicted in Myrdal’s American Dilemma. From the point of view of the social psychologist, the conflicting norms of equality and inequality in our culture are internalized and create an ambivalence which is damaging to members of both minority and majority groups.

It is true, as Bettelheim states, the effects of this process will not be uniform for every individual, in every situation, or for all groups. Also the factors which determine the individual’s “stability” are numerous, and we do not at present have enough knowledge to be able to weight these factors in relation to each other. However, it is scientific to study a single factor such as prejudice even though we do not have the key to the total pattern.

It should be noted that Clark’s contention that prejudice is damaging to personality development has impressive support. For the effects’ on children in minority groups, we can refer to the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth (Witmer and Kotinsky: Personality in the Making. Chapter 6); Kurt Lewin’s essays; and more recently Kardiner and Oversey: The Mark of Oppression. Documentation for the effects of prejudice on members of the dominant group will be found in Dollard: Caste and Class in a Southern Town; Adorno: The Authoritarian Personality; Lillian Smith: Killers of the Dream, and numerous writers of fiction, particularly Faulkner.

Granted the complexity of the subject and the preliminary rather than definitive nature of Clark’s statement. But Bettelheim is in error in characterizing Clark’s volume as unscientific. . . .

Henry Miller
The School of Education
The City College
New York, N. Y.

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