Commentary Magazine


Social Science and Scholarship

To the Editor:

In his thoughtful essay, “The Problem of Kenneth Clark” [November 1974], Hadley Arkes reviews Clark’s record as a social scientist and finds it wanting. He mentions specifically Clark’s research on the relationship between racial segregation and psychological damage to Negro children, which was cited by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, Mr. Arkes examines that research and demonstrates that Clark’s empirical testing did not prove that schools were responsible for the black children’s feelings of inferiority. Does this discovery challenge the legitimacy of the Brown decision? Mr. Arkes thinks not.

The Court’s conclusion that the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place in the field of public education relied on Clark’s findings. Mr. Arkes does not overlook this problem. He argues, however, that the Court’s judgment did not rest on any sociological evidence since the case “had more to do finally with conditions of citizenship than with any statistical patterns among black students.” Mr. Arkes calls the sociological evidence concerning a sense of inferiority and its effect on a child’s motivation to learn “a rather speculative point” and unnecessary for the judgment. “It could hardly compare in its firmness, or in its elementary force as a constitutional point, with the recognition, established in common understanding, that a separation of races ordained by the state placed the stamp of inferior rank on a whole class of citizens.” Thus, Mr. Arkes anchors the Brown decision in Justice Harlan Sr.’s famous Plessy dissent: “Our Constitution is colorblind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

Although Harlan’s reasoning was approximated in Boiling v. Sharpe, the companion case to Brown, it is not expressed anywhere in the Brown opinion. Where Harlan’s argument infers an unconstitutional purpose—discrimination against the newly-freed race—from the very language of the statute, Warren’s Brown opinion faults the school segregation statutes for two subjective reasons: the generation of feelings of inferiority and the subsequent effect on a child’s motivation to learn. The points were considered together, not separately, and each is susceptible of empirical testing. Hence, the decision is open to reversal if new data contradict the thesis. Or, if racial segregation does result in psychological harm to the minority race, even without the sanction of law, as a lower-court decision cited in Brown maintained, then the judicial remedy would have to go beyond prohibiting segregation to requiring actual integration, i.e., racial balance. This new view of equal protection of the laws undermines the distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere, so crucial for the maintenance of liberal democracy.

At least on the basis of the Court’s opinion, then, the judgment did turn on something as contingent as Clark’s empirical findings. Apparently Mr. Arkes wants to give Justice Warren the benefit of the doubt, for he seems to attribute to the judgment of the Court what the Justices meant, or should have meant, rather than what they said. But if the Court had only said what Mr. Arkes said it meant, subsequent Court decisions and administrative actions would not have had such an easy time converting Brown into a constitutional sanction for affirmative-action programs that now take explicit account of race and resemble a reverse Plessy situation. Perhaps, as one authority has recently argued, it is entirely constitutional for a majority to discriminate against itself, although the Court said otherwise in the 1964 Colorado apportionment case. Aside from the constitutional question, we don’t see how reverse discrimination enlarges the sphere of freedom or promotes racial harmony. We suspect that Mr. Arkes would agree with us on this point. Our sole disagreement with him concerns the character of the Brown decision. Would Justice Harlan’s Plessy opinion have lent itself to reverse discrimination as the Brown decision has?

Jody Kujovich
Murray Dry

Middlebury College
Middlebury, Vermont

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To the Editor:

. . . Hadley Arkes’s bias against the studies on racial identification and preference by Kenneth Clark is seen in his claim that they are “on the whole, modest affairs.” . . . Yet The Handbook of Social Psychology (edited by Lindzey and Aronson, 1968, vol. 5, pp. 17-22) reviews the large body of research stimulated by Clark’s innovative techniques which repeatedly confirmed the original findings. And it need hardly be added that frequent citation in this professional work is reserved for important, not modest, experiments.

One is also struck by the naiveté of a political scientist who opposes busing in New York because it violates the “firmest principle” of the Brown decision. Mr. Arkes does not seem to be aware of recent court rulings in the North and West (for example, in Boston and Denver) which have weakened the distinction between de jure and de facto segregation and have recognized that the latter does not require state segregation laws. Racial segregation in the schools of New York is the result of official decisions on attendance zones, feeder patterns, site selection, building programs, and building utilization. At stake here is a constitutional issue, not Clark’s advocacy. To call the redress of unconstitutional acts “a system of assignment . . . based explicitly on race” is to ignore recent judicial decisions and to engage in demagoguery.

Finally . . . Mr. Arkes urges Clark to take a moral stance and speak to the black community about illegitimacy, drug addiction, family instability, and other “pathologies.” It seems to me that a greater contribution to social justice will occur if Clark continues his lifelong fight against racial injustice in education, employment, child care, housing, prisons; in short, in those areas where white racism is the real issue.

Lawrence Plotkin
Metropolitan Applied Research Center
New York City

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To the Editor:

A reader has the right to expect that any article, book, or monograph will help him understand the world about him better. Hadley Arkes’s piece violates this cardinal rule. Who cares about the problem of Kenneth Clark unless his writings and role help illuminate some issue or problem? Mr. Arkes has failed to posit any question to which his article is relevant. . . .

Mr. Arkes’s dereliction is truly regrettable, for there is at least one issue which could be illuminated by a serious study of the works and impact of Kenneth Clark. This issue does not reside in a . . . cataloguing of alleged inconsistencies, semantic slips, and flights of fancy, as Mr. Arkes seems to think. Such inconsistencies are inherent in the words and deeds of anyone who has been as active over a thirty-year period as has Kenneth Clark. Instead, the problem of Kenneth Clark (which ought to be instantly recognized by a political scientist) is the same as the problem of Daniel P. Moynihan, Milton Friedman, Arthur Schlesinger, Henry Kissinger, and other academicians who have tried to apply their knowledge and perspectives to the shaping of social policy: . . . how to use theoretical knowledge to cope with real social, economic, and political problems. . . . But Mr. Arkes makes no attempt to address this exceedingly complex issue.

James A. Jones
Columbia University School of Social Work
New York City

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To the Editor:

Hadley Arkes misses the point which Kenneth Clark and others like him in the black community are making. The struggle for acceptance by blacks is political and economic, as it was for the Jews, Italians, and the many other non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups who . . . managed to gain acceptance in the American system. Mr. Arkes’s criticism makes interesting reading, his style is superb, and his diligence in having done his homework is to be admired and appreciated. But, since at least 1800, those on the way up in this country have used intellectual authority when they found it useful, scientific authority (especially during the last hundred years), and democratic doctrine in every case. Kenneth Clark’s effort (and writing) over the last twenty-five years should be placed in this perspective. Seen as a polemic, its practical results have been magnificent. . . .

John B. Hawley
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, Illinois

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To the Editor:

While I agree with most of Hadley Arkes’s comments about Kenneth Clark. . . I fail to understand why the focus is only on Clark—why not on the intellectual Left and those militants in the minority community who often confuse rhetoric with reform and espouse only the virtues of ghetto life without mentioning its viruses. . . . Granted Clark avoids certain sensitive issues within the black community. But, then, many social scientists who are aware of their minority background feel a greater sense of duty toward their own community than to the academic world; complete objectivity is often secondary to one’s ethnic identity. Why then condemn Clark for something that is becoming increasingly evident among many minority social scientists—of whom Clark is one of the least irresponsible?

Allan C. Ornstein
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

Hadley Arkes correctly points out that Kenneth Clark’s research on “Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children” shows, if it shows anything, that desegregation harms Negro children, for the injuries Clark finds are “exhibited to the greatest degree in the less segregated setting.” Mr. Arkes also mentions that Clark interprets his experiments—heads I win, tails you lose—to mean that when (by his standard) segregated black children exhibit less frequent injury than desegregated ones, they are more injured for not showing it.

Clark went even further. Testifying as an expert in the lower courts in the cases that led to the Brown decision, he asserted that his in loco experiments showed that segregated black children were harmed by segregation and that this is “consistent with previous results which we have obtained in testing over 300 children,” i.e., the results described in “Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children.” He knew it was not. “Professor Clark misled the courts,” I wrote in 1960. “The best conclusion that can be drawn is that he did not know what he was doing; and the worst that he did” (Villanova Law Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall 1960). Accumulating evidence suggests that Clark did know. Incompetence thus no longer serves as an excuse—though it may remain a mitigating circumstance.

There are a number of outstanding black scholars in the social sciences. They are neglected, while honors are bestowed on Clark, as Mr. Arkes points out. One is forced to conclude that white academicians, administrators, and foundation executives feel that the neglected scholars are less representative than Clark is. I cannot imagine a more contemptuous form of racism.

Ernest van den Haag
New York City

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To the Editor:

Hadley Arkes . . . has written a vicious, unfair polemic. It appears that Mr. Arkes is extremely annoyed that many distinguished Americans, among others, have looked to Kenneth Clark for guidance and counsel. I would assume he feels that they have been duped, as it also appears, according to Mr. Arkes, that the Supreme Court was mistaken in giving too much credence to Kenneth Clark’s research.

Mr. Arkes’s venom ranges all the way from accusations of Kenneth Clark’s alleged excessive pride in and assumption of national leadership to having misused funds entrusted to him.

As one who has known and worked with Kenneth Clark for more than twenty years, I resent this hatchet job. One need not agree with Kenneth Clark on all counts to recognize the leadership and wisdom he has given to the American community. He has always had an open mind, has been ready to change his point of view, has not only listened to but has sought critical comment and dialogue. Above all, however, he has given of himself unsparingly. His contribution to the effort to attain equality in this country has been enormous. The many who have known and worked with Kenneth Clark have gained immeasurably from his thinking, and they will always be grateful to him. . . .

Oscar Cohen
Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith
New York City

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To the Editor:

During the decade following 1954, blacks in the U.S. had some of their best days: gains were made in the courts, legislation, and employment; black leadership was brilliant and effected a mass appeal. Liberal intellectuals, including COMMENTARY, climbed aboard the bandwagon. Since the mid-1960’s, however, the tide has turned politically. Reactionary forces have emerged to wipe out the gains and destroy the leadership. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were merely the most dramatic and horrible of the assaults upon the quest for equality and self-determination.

There was a touch of the mob spirit, even among erstwhile liberals, as they joined in charging blacks with advocating “racism in reverse” and as they helped to prepare briefs for court injunctions against the expanded opportunities for college and professional education available to black students.

It is a pity that COMMENTARY opened its columns to the orchestrated “lynchings.” The attack upon Kenneth Clark is the latest and possibly the most cynical of the whole series.

L. D. Reddick
Temple University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Hadley Arkes writes:

I have no quarrel with Jody Kujovich and Murray Dry (and I suspect they know that). I never meant to suggest that the Court had been sensible enough in the Brown case to cast its opinion largely along the lines of Justice Harlan’s dissent in Plessy. In that respect I don’t doubt for a moment that the Court is more responsible than anyone else for the inanities that have plagued us over the years as we have sought to understand the commitments that arise from the Brown decision; and it surely must bear the main responsibility then for our experience with such things as racial “balancing,” affirmative action, and the use of racial quotas. In my own discussion, I wrote of the kind of “judgment that the Court was in a position to reach in the Brown case,” and what I sought to do was to convey my sense of the most plausible grounds on which that case might properly have been decided. The opinion of the Court ran, really, in a couple of different directions. It is true, as my correspondents say, that the Court never mentioned Justice Harlan’s dissent in Plessy, but as it sought to argue that segregated education would be unequal in its results, it drew on the opinion of the lower court in Kansas, which in turn recalled the character of Justice Harlan’s old dissent: “. . . The impact [of segregated education] is greater when it has the sanction of law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.”

In addition, Clark and his colleagues had claimed to speak in their brief only of the kind of segregation that “results from or is supported by the action of any official body or agency representing some branch of government.” In fashioning an account, then, of the meanings that might have been comprehended in the decision of the Court, it was fair to consider that Harlan’s argument, in substance, had been presented explicitly to the Court, and that the Court itself had incorporated that perspective in filling out its own argument.

Apart from that, however, it is not clear that we should wish to rest our judgment finally with Justice Harlan’s opinion in Plessy. It may be wrong to place a whole class of citizens in an inferior rank, but in the tradition of political theory that Justice Harlan shared, it was quite legitimate to place a whole class of people in a lower position simply by denying them admission, as a class, to the privileges of citizenship. Harlan himself was quite willing to make these discriminations, and as he made clear in his opinion in Plessy, he was willing to base them explicitly on race (viz., his remarks about the Chinese—“a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States”). But of course one could not accept these kinds of discriminations in principle without suggesting that it might be plausible to make similar kinds of discriminations among citizens as well. I could not pursue this matter further in the piece on Clark, and I mention it here only to suggest that the question does indeed run much deeper than Justice Harlan’s opinion in Plessy, and that a satisfying opinion for the Brown case remains to be written.

I cannot deal here with all of the points raised by Lawrence Plotkin, but my comments on the Brown case would probably be enough to indicate the main lines of my response on the matter of the recent court cases. For his own part, Mr. Plotkin affects a serene unawareness of the very complicated situations that the courts have faced as they have broken down the distinction between de jure and de facto segregation. His own elevation from “naiveté” has apparently placed him beyond those elementary questions that persist in bothering some of us—i.e., whether the decisions handed down by the courts can, in any strict sense, be justified.

As for the rest of Mr. Plotkin’s letter, it was only to be expected that we would require someone from the Metropolitan Applied Research Center (Mr. Clark’s own research firm) to certify the seminal nature of Clark’s work. Mr. Plotkin neglects to mention, however, just which of Mr. Clark’s findings have been borne out by the subsequent research: that black children in integrated settings show a greater tendency to reject their blackness, or that black children in segregated settings continue to manifest their psychological injury by refusing to reject their blackness.

James A. Jones apparently missed the most important theme in my piece, for he assumes that there is a critical difference between the requirements of scholarship and the discipline of public leadership at its highest level. It was precisely my point that Clark’s oscillations as a public man were reflections of a serious failure on his part to establish the grounds of principle on which his own teachings rested. Mr. Jones writes in the vein of Churchill explaining Marlborough, but what we are faced with in the case of Kenneth Clark is not simply a matter of inconsistencies on the surface—or of a public man throwing his weight at different times against the current trend of opinion; we are dealing, rather, with a want of clarity on the level of basic principle, and with the absence of what used to be called, in an earlier day, the tether of reason. Mr. Jones offers the example of Daniel P. Moynihan and other scholars who have participated for years in the public discourse of politics. And yet most of the men he mentions have preserved a certain coherence and definition for themselves over the years, in large part as a result of the kind of reflection they have managed to show on the principled bases of their concerns. Certainly that has been true of Daniel P. Moynihan, and at those moments when he has seemed to alter course a bit, one has had the advantage at least of being clear on the reasons that impelled him to his move.

To judge Clark, then, as a public man, one must insist on judging the substance of his thought; and yet, in a curious way, that is an exercise from which John B. Hawley and Allan C. Ornstein would have us stay our hands. Mr. Hawley suggests that I miss the point in taking Clark seriously—that Clark’s scholarship must be understood in a larger political scheme, in which groups on the rise have simply “used intellectual authority when they found it useful.” And if these efforts are to be judged, they are to be judged only by their “practical results.” If this is a “defense” of Clark, it must be one, surely, that Clark himself could not relish. At its worst, it assumes that the absence of integrity in scholarship is not itself a serious matter. At its best, it is simply patronizing.

On the other hand, Mr. Ornstein would have me hold my criticism because Clark is one of the “least irresponsible” among the “minority social scientists” and because there are so many better targets running around on the militant Left. But it is precisely because Clark has been held up in this way as one of the best social scientists in the black community—and as a man who is worthy of public deference—that he deserves to be reckoned with and tested on the terms he has set for himself. To push on with Mr. Ornstein’s argument would be to confirm the very fault that Ernest, van den Haag has aptly warned us against. It would be to patronize, again, where honor is not due, and it would work a libel, in its own way, on black scholars. May I suggest, also, to Mr. Ornstein that the worst of what he finds among “minority social scientists” may have something to do with what we have been willing to patronize over the years as the “best.”

I understand what Mr. Ornstein is saying when he cautions us not to expect scholars who are aware of their “minority backgrounds” to be critical in public toward their own groups, particularly on matters that touch importantly on moral codes. But we ought to remind ourselves that things were not always this way. There was a time, we might recall, when the conditions of leadership were not thought to enjoin a willingness to remain silent on the moral shortcomings of one’s own community. In this respect, we ought to read again Frederick Douglass’s 1848 essay, “What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves?,” in Herbert Storing (ed.), What Country Have I?

I wish that Oscar Cohen might have found some means of extending the same civilities to me that I was willing to extend to Mr. Clark, and that he had been willing to treat the substance of what I said, rather than plunging into epithets. I never used in relation to Mr. Clark the kind of language that Mr. Cohen thinks proper to use in relation to me, and I would suggest that if Mr. Cohen has an interest in “vicious, unfair polemic[s],” in “hatchet jobs” dripping with “venom,” then he could hardly do better than to consult Mr. Clark’s recent book, Pathos of Power. In particular, pages 129-30 provide a notable case-study of sorts in the manner of treating people with whom one happens to disagree. In Mr. Cohen’s remarks there is little reflection of the substance of my article, and what little there is is inaccurate. For example, I never accused Mr. Clark, by any construction, of “having misused funds entrusted to him.” But these remarks, generally, are rather reckless and hyperbolic, and one can only wonder, in the case of Mr. Cohen, whether a career spent in combating defamation might not in fact have cultivated a disposition to practice it.

Last on the list, L. D. Reddick is a simple name-caller.

I would like to offer my thanks, finally, for the favorable letters I have received (most of which arrived privately rather than publicly), and for those who were adverse in their reactions, I would like to think, in the spirit of Jane Austen, that they did not have the pleasure, perhaps, of understanding me.

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