In recent years, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has been used widely on social media against racism towards the Black people, especially African-Americans, but this injustice is not something new. Black people have been suffering and facing discrimination even before the 17th century. The Africans were brought to Europe as slaves, and even after the abolition of the slavery system after the American Civil War, the discrimination against the Black people continues. In the 1940s, a psychologist couple experimented to study the effect of discrimination on Black children. One of the conclusions of the study was that a Black child is aware by the age of five that “to be colored in….. American society is a mark of inferior status”.
Over the years, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has gained global popularity on social media platforms. The slogan began in July, 2013 after a shooting that resulted in the death of an American-African teen Trayvon Martin on the night of February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. The use of #BlackLivesMatter widely spread worldwide when a 46 years old African-American man was brutally murdered on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. Many similar incidents against the Black people, especially the African-Americans, have been reported but the injustice against the Black people is not something new. It has its roots in the slavery system back in 1619 when the European settlers brought 20 enslaved Africans ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia to fulfill the labor needs. The American Civil War had abolished slavery, but it didn’t end the discrimination against the Black people. They continued to face the effects of racism and racial segregation and this was officially known as the Jim Crow laws.
The Jim Crow laws were enforced right after the abolition of slavery in the United States that legalized racial segregation. African-Americans were forbidden to enter public parks, and the theatres and restaurants were segregated. Places as common as the waiting rooms in bus and train stations, water fountains, restrooms, building entrances, elevators, cemeteries, jails, amusement park cashier windows, phone booths were segregated as well. Segregation of other public places including hospitals, schools, public pools, asylums, residential homes for the elderly and handicapped was also done. Some states even required separate textbooks for Black and White students. It was also very common to see signs posted at the town and city limits warning African Americans that they were not welcome.
One of the most affected victims of these oppressive Jim Crow laws were African-American children. They had to face racial discrimination from a very young age and they grew up with the mindset of ‘white is good and black is bad’. Looking at the oppressive nature of the Jim Crow laws, many African-Americans stepped forward against the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine. In the 1940s, psychologist couple Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of experiments on black kids to study the psychological effect of segregation on African-American children. The experiment grew out of Mamie Clark’s master’s degree thesis. She herself was a victim of the oppressive Jim Crow laws, studying in a segregated school made her realize how society treated Black and White humans. This later inspired her to study the racial discrimination among Black children.
The experiment was originally known as ‘the doll test’ and the study was titled ‘Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children’, published in the ‘Journal of Negro Education’. The study was done among African-American children attending segregated schools in Washington, DC versus those in integrated schools in New York. Among the children, 134 were from the south that went to segregated schools and 119 were from the north that went to mixed schools. The children were presented with two dolls identical in all aspects except the color. One doll was black with brown hair while the other was white with yellow hair. The children were asked questions like: which doll is a nice doll, which doll is bad, which doll has a nice color, which doll would you like to play with, which doll looks like you etc. All the children preferred the white doll over the black doll when asked which one is nice, which one looks good, which one would you want to play with; while they chose the black doll when asked which one was bad and ugly. The reasons given by kids for choosing the white doll were “because he is white”, “because he is pretty”, “because he has two eyes”, “cause his feet, hands, ears, elbows, knees, and hair are clean”, and reasons for rejecting the black doll were, “because he is ugly”, “because he is black”, “because he looks bad”, “because he hasn’t got an eyelash”. When asked which doll looks like you, “two children run (sic) out of the testing room, uncontrollable, convulsed in tears” Clark said.
The experiment was presented in the Supreme Court case in Brown v. Board of Education that ended segregation in public schools. The case was also supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to end legal segregation. Finally, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court under chief justice Earl Warren declared segregation in public schools as unconstitutional. He stated:
“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”
Though the test was opposed and questioned by many, Clarks’ doll test proved to be influential evidence for the Brown v. Board decision. The test was recreated several times and even after so many years, the results were found to be white biased. People continue to associate positive attributes with lighter skin tones, and negative attributes with darker skin tones. We live in a society where white skin, blue eyes, yellow hair are still considered to be pretty, and attractive while the black and brown skin tones are considered to be ugly, nasty, unattractive, and awful. Black is everyone’s favorite until it comes to the skin.
At this point, Albert Einstein’s words ring true: “It’s very depressing to live in a time where it’s easier to break an atom than a prejudice.”
Maria Aqdas is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Farzan Ghani