Social Scientists for Social Justice:<BR>Making the Case against Segregation

Social Scientists for Social Justice:Making the Case against Segregation

John P. Jackson, Jr.

New York Univ. Press. 289 pp. $45...

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New York Univ. Press. 289 pp. $45
Reviewed by David J. Garrow


The U.S. Supreme Court stimulated years of debate by citing, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a handful of social science studies attesting to the deleterious effects of legalized racial segregation. Did the Court’s reference to "psychological knowledge" strengthen the decision? Or would Brown have been a stronger opinion had the Court simply asserted a constitutional principle without seeking the additional ballast?

Critical commentary has increasingly endorsed the latter view, partly because, as Jackson notes in his valuable new book, "the idea that social scientists’ testimony in Brown was unfounded has become the dominant understanding." But Jackson, a professor of communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wants to correct that understanding. He argues that "the social scientists made very limited claims" in their testimony–stressing, for example, "that the problem of [psychological] damage arising from discrimination was exceedingly complex, and that it undoubtedly was intertwined with countless other aspects of society"–and that almost all of the claims were fully justified.

The one exception arose in testimony by Kenneth B. Clark, a professor at City College of New York. In a series of "doll tests," Clark gave African American children black and white dolls, identical except for skin color, and asked them to choose the "nice" doll, the "bad" doll, and so on. Clark was "only one of dozens of expert witnesses" who testified in the four cases that together made up Brown–from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Kansas–and his Effect of Prejudice and Discrimination on Personality Development (1950) was only one of seven social science studies that the Court cited. But the doll tests ended up symbolizing, and tainting, all of the social science evidence.

Ordinarily a rigorous and objective social scientist, Clark "stepped over the bounds of proper scientific procedure and into the realm of advocacy," Jackson writes. Testifying in the Delaware case, he misrepresented his findings. Elsewhere, he seemed capable of construing contradictory responses on the part of his African American subjects–choosing either the black doll or the white doll as the "bad" one–as proof of psychological damage. "The doll tests became the lightning rod for criticism of the social scientists’ role," Jackson observes, "and were perhaps the weakest part of the social science evidence in the Brown litigation."

Despite a few troubling errors–for example, a reference to the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment (only the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection)–Social Scientists for Social Justice is a thoughtful and original book. Early chapters trace how social scientists were galvanized by "Hitler’s rise to power, the struggle against Nazi ideology, and the perceived need to unify the nation behind the war effort." These self-described "social engineers" grew convinced that racial prejudice threatened the democratic order. Their most important contribution to Brown, a statement filed with the Supreme Court in late 1952, was persuasive because of its neutral, dispassionate tone. Indeed, the doll tests notwithstanding, these social engineers succeeded in their task by functioning "as both objective scientists and effective advocates."

–David J. Garrow

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