Commentary Magazine


Prejudice and Your Child, by Kenneth B. Clark

Discrimination and Science
by Bruno Bettelheim
Prejudice and Your Child. by Kenneth B. Clark. Beacon Press. 151 pp. $2.50.

Because Kenneth B. Clark’s Prejudice and Your Child is written out of the most laudable intentions, it raises again the very serious question of how far a good cause can be served by unsubstantial or even specious arguments made in its favor. And because it is a book which removes a problem of social justice from the realm of ethics to that of the social sciences, it raises equally serious questions about the ground of moral decisions.

Everyone, of course, agrees theoretically that ends do not justify means, but most of us have a way of forgetting this when the goal is very deeply cherished. Then nearly any false reasoning on the part of a friend who shares one’s over-all view seems permissible; there is a temptation to shrug and overlook errors in regard to details lest the enemy be provided with ammunition.

This attitude bespeaks little confidence in the power of a good cause to triumph without violating truth. I do not share such pessimism; I believe that the liberal position, be it in race relations or civil liberties, is strong enough to weather successfully any justified criticisms. I further believe that exposing erroneous arguments for the liberal position—particularly when this is done by friends rather than enemies—is a way of strengthening that position. I hold finally that the cause of social justice is far better served by treating the moral issues involved frankly as moral issues and not as neutral scientific data.

Professor Clark is one of many liberal sociologists and anthropologists who believe that prejudice is always psychologically harmful to everyone concerned—to the member of a White Citizens council no less than to the Negro—and who also think that scientific evidence supports this belief. My own experience in the study of prejudice has convinced me that, while our present methods of investigation do indeed permit us to say why a person is prejudiced, or which personality types tend to harbor racial prejudice, they by no means give us warrant to predict whether such persons would be happier if they were to become tolerant. Valid scientific arguments suggest that, though prejudice is always a social and economic disadvantage to the victim of discrimination, it sometimes serves vital needs for the victimizer by providing an outlet for discharging internal pressures. But the scientific approach to racial discrimination has not yet given us a means of determining whether such an outlet can be justified.

I recall only too well the “scientific” arguments propagated by Goebbels purporting to prove that racist doctrine was an advantage to the German people. I also recall that those who opposed Goebbels on moral grounds, rather than because he was being unscientific, were able to hold fast even when surrounded by an ocean of racism. Considerations of prudence and strategy tell us, then, that it is wiser to base the case for tolerance on ethics rather than on science. Whether we shall ever be able to find unequivocal scientific evidence in favor of tolerance, I do not know. But we must recognize from the start that the issue is a moral one, to be decided on moral grounds, regardless of whether present methods of investigation can provide the supporting scientific arguments or not.

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“Your child—every child—is harmed by prejudice in the neighborhood, in the school, and in the nation,” reads the blurb on the dust-jacket of Professor Clark’s book, and it is a fair statement of his thesis. It is also obviously untrue. Of course, some, perhaps many, children suffer because of their own prejudice, but it can never be demonstrated that all children do. It should be possible to destroy the prejudice that one race is superior to another without reinforcing that other prejudice which asserts that we can determine scientifically what attitudes or feelings harm every child. Nothing is gained by replacing the outrageous claims of the racists with equally unfounded, all-encompassing declarations on the part of those fighting for tolerance. The liberal in particular should beware of echoing the claim of the totalitarians who say they know what is best for everybody.

To assert that racial prejudice is bad and racial discrimination vile, is to make a moral decision. Such an assertion should never depend on the assumption that it is always to one’s own practical interest, as scientifically determined, not to practice racial discrimination. What, for example, would Professor Clark make of the ancient Greek’s prejudice against the “barbarism” of his neighbors? To feel superior to these barbarians may have been, and probably was, morally unjustified if not positively wicked. But it would be hard to demonstrate through scientific investigation that it had bad consequences for the ancient Greeks and the Western world in general. Reasoning from consequences, it would be even harder to prove that slavery in ancient Greece was an evil, for without slavery there would have been no leisure, and hence no Plato or Aristotle. I do not mean this as an argument for slavery; 1 merely want to suggest that the example of ancient Greece might be used to prove that slavery is desirable if practical consequences are to be invoked as the deciding factor in moral issues.

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What happens when an effort is made to decide ethical problems on the assumed findings of social scientists, or on the basis of the utilitarian definition of the good as that which benefits the greatest number of people at any given moment, can be seen from almost every page of Professor Clark’s book. He endorses, for example, the familiar presumption that meeting children of different races and religions in school leads to better racial and religious relations, and at the same time increases the child’s social competence and his “chances for personal and moral stability.”

Having, as a Jewish boy, attended non-segregated schools in Germany and Austria, I know this to be blatantly untrue. Indeed, it was the non-segregated German public schools where the seeds of racism and ultra-nationalism took firm root, while most children who went to Catholic parochial schools turned out (even under the Nazis) to be much less prejudiced, not only against Jews but Poles and Czechs as well. The fact is that Professor Clark, using similar questionnaires and sampling methods, might very easily have collected an even larger mass of data to support the opposite point of view.

Neither questionnaires nor statistics are a guarantee of scientific detachment, and certainly not of consistency. On one page Professor Clark tells us that discrimination violates the most cherished American beliefs and hence creates deep inner conflicts, while on another he points out that “the American creed and racial discrimination are not contradictory but compatible elements of American history and social psychology. Each has the same motivation—an intense drive for status and security.” Here he seems momentarily aware that some individuals achieve a sense of status and security by feeling superior to members of minority groups. It follows that while the children of a minority group may be harmed by discrimination in their striving for status, children of the majority (or of socially superior groups) who can find security in this and in no other way are helped psychologically by the “permission” to discriminate.

This fact, which contradicts the basic thesis of the book, is lost in the flood of Professor Clark’s benevolent, non-scientific, intentions. “Racial prejudices,” he believes, “are indications of a disturbed and potentially unstable society.” Actually, some of the most stable (i.e., conservative) societies in history were based on the exclusion of all foreigners, or on unalterable class or caste distinctions. Why, in any case, should stability be set up as a criterion of social health? Does not the author himself spend most of his book propagandizing for rapid social change?

Professor Clark also tends to view maladjustment among members of the in-group as either a cause or effect of discrimination and segregation. It should by now be common knowledge that an individual can be quite well adjusted and still hold intolerant attitudes. I might refer in this context to a study of prejudice made by Professor Morris Janowitz and myself which showed that among the middle and lower classes it is usually the better adjusted individual who upholds the prejudices prevailing in his milieu. Because he fails to recognize this, Professor Clark finds it a “paradox” that “individuals who profess strong religious affiliations are more likely to be prejudiced than others who do not.” This is no paradox at all, but another indication that the members of socially stable groups tend to be more prejudiced than others: strong religious affiliation usually breeds religious in-group identification, with consequent suspicion of all out-groups. In addition, Professor Clark does not distinguish clearly between inner personal stability (which, by and large, is more frequently achieved in contemporary America by the mildly discriminating and prejudiced person) and the stability of society as a whole (which may or may not be threatened by discrimination).

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It speaks for Professor Clark’s honesty that he reports data in obvious contradiction to his thesis-though he does not always realize it. For example, he notes that when children were asked, in a test, to color the drawing of a boy or a girl, “nearly 80 per cent of the southern Negro children colored their preferences brown, whereas only 36 per cent of the northern Negro children did. Furthermore, over 20 per cent of the northern [Negro] children colored their preferences in a bizarre color, while only five per cent of the southern [Negro] children did. A record of the spontaneous remarks of the children showed that 80 per cent of the southern children spoke as they worked, but only 20 per cent of the northern children did so.”

Such results expose the severe psychological difficulties created by desegregation. The Northern child finds it far more difficult than the Southern to accept himself as a Negro. And we know from the experience of second-generation white Americans that desegregation does not necessarily make for greater security in their case either.

How hard it is to remain scientifically objective when one is really a moral partisan may be seen again from another passage. Two pages after Professor Clark reports on the obvious difficulties of the Northern Negro child in identifying with the in-group (as revealed, among other things, by the coloring test), he claims that the personality adjustment of the Northern is healthier than that of the Southern Negro. This he supports with the following statement: “Statistics of admissions of Negroes to northern state hospitals for the mentally ill show that the annual rate of admission of northern-born Negroes is 40 per 100,000, compared to 186 per 100,000 for those Negroes who were born and lived in the south. These figures, striking in themselves, become even more significant when they are compared with the annual rate of admission of 45 for northern-born whites.” The only inference we can draw from these figures is not that Northern Negroes are better adjusted than Southern ones, but that it creates great emotional stress to move from a segregated to a non-segregated area, so much so that it increases the incidence of severe mental illness by 450 per cent.

The conclusion would seem to be that the Southern Negro ought to stay put for the sake of his mental health. Fortunately, this is not necessarily true, since a valid comparison between admission of Northern and Southern Negroes to mental hospitals would require a comparison of Negro admissions in the North with parallel data for Southern state hospitals. Probably, even this would not be conclusive, since a variety of other factors, such as socioeconomic and educational levels (none of which Professor Clark mentions) determine whether a family keeps the mentally ill person at home or hospitalizes him. The argument was suggested only to show how far a social scientist can stray from scientific detachment when he wishes to support a thesis close to his heart.

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I have gone to some lengths in pointing out the inner contradictions that inevitably emerge when the demand for racial equality is based on data from the social sciences or individual psychology. Psychologically speaking, it is just not true that what benefits one benefits all, or that what hurts one hurts all. Social and political equality are issues of justice and morality, not of psychological utilitarianism. It is not even true that strides toward greater racial equality will make everybody happier. But it certainly will make a juster, more human world to live in.

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