Revisiting the Kenneth Clark Study: White Racist Children, a Surprise?

CNN has had a University of Chicago professor, Margaret Beale Spencer, to test 133 black and white children (in two groups, one 4-5 and one 9-10 years old) in eight schools in New York City and Georgia, to see their preferences for white and black skin, a sort of contemporary testing of issues that psychologist Ken Clark raised many years ago – and that were used in the famous footnote to the Brown decision. The CNN website gives this summary:

Spencer’s researchers asked the younger children a series of questions and had them answer by pointing to one of five cartoon pictures that varied in skin color from light to dark. The older children were asked the same questions using the same cartoon pictures, and were then asked a series of questions about a color bar chart that showed light to dark skin tones. The tests showed that white children, as a whole, responded with a high rate of what researchers call “white bias,” identifying the color of their own skin with positive attributes and darker skin with negative attributes. Spencer said even black children, as a whole, have some bias toward whiteness, but far less than white children.

Spencer adds this point:

“What’s really significant here is that white children are learning or maintaining those stereotypes much more strongly than the African-American children. Therefore, the white youngsters are even more stereotypic in their responses concerning attitudes, beliefs and attitudes and preferences than the African-American children.” … Spencer says this may be happening because “parents of color in particular had the extra burden of helping to function as an interpretative wedge for their children. Parents have to reframe what children experience … and the fact that white children and families don’t have to engage in that level of parenting, I think, does suggest a level of entitlement. You can spend more time on spelling, math and reading, because you don’t have that extra task of basically reframing messages that children get from society.”

Well, whites invented and maintained the system of racial oppression, and its rationalizing white racial frame, with many anti-black and anti-other stereotypes–and lots of pro-white stereotypes as well. So, the white children get a much better “education” in racist stereotyping 101. And the Black children are having to fight back against this white racist framing of both virtuous whiteness and negative stuff about their own group. And of course black parents and children have to reframe this racist stuff. There is a strong, 380-year-old black counter frame against the white racial frame, in much of black America. Apparently, psychologists do not think much in historical and structural terms, or read research on systemic racism and the old white racial frame.
Then there is this comment in the CNN article:

Spencer was also surprised that children’s ideas about race, for the most part, don’t evolve as they get older. The study showed that children’s ideas about race change little from age 5 to age 10.

Again, there is some good sociological literature over the last decade that shows just how early white children learn the white racial frame of African Americans and other Americans of color – which CNN and these psychologists might well have consulted too.


  1. Will

    It makes sense seeing as how black children were programmed to see the “ugliness” of their race and the “beauty” in the white race as evidence in the doll tests conducted by psychologist Kenneth Clark and filmmaker Kiri Davis. At the same time white children are programmed with the same racial frame but it helps their self-esteem.

  2. Joe

    Thanks, Will. The only sort-of good news here is that some of the black children operate well out of the black counter-frame, that also is nearly 400 years old in North America. Every hour, if not every minute, we get stories like this one, even in the mainstream media–in a supposedly “post-racial America.”


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