The doll study

I was excited and exhilarated to see this article.

Educators and policy makers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have said in recent days that they hope President Obama’s example as a model student could inspire millions of American students, especially blacks, to higher academic performance. Now researchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.


I started thinking about things like that some time last spring, when I finally accepted that Obama wasn’t just a charismatic but basically random candidate. I started thinking about them even more once his nomination seemed more secure, and then during and after the convention, and then during the rest of the campaign. But I avoided thinking about them too much, because they prompted too much longing, and I was too afraid of disappointment in the end.

I was thinking about millions of children all over the country, in East St Louis and Detroit and Fresno and Philadelphia, Mississippi, and what it could mean for them to see Barack Obama in the White House. I was thinking about a potential Obama effect. I was thinking about Thurgood Marshall and the ‘colored doll’

In the “doll test,” psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark used four plastic, diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color. They showed the dolls to black children between the ages of three and seven and asked them questions to determine racial perception and preference. Almost all of the children readily identified the race of the dolls. However, when asked which they preferred, the majority selected the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it. The Clarks also gave the children outline drawings of a boy and girl and asked them to color the figures the same color as themselves. Many of the children with dark complexions colored the figures with a white or yellow crayon. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred.

That haunting, painful study played a role in Brown v Topeka Board of Education and thus in the end of ‘separate but equal’ as a legal fiction and segregated schools in the US…So it seems pretty obvious that a hyper-intelligent, eloquent, impressive black person in the White House would enable children to select the black doll and attribute positive characteristics to it. This study seems to bear that out.

Not that we didn’t already know that (but it’s nice to have the data). We knew it up one side and down the other. We knew it all over the place for the past week – and a beautiful thing it is. I still have Wednesday’s New York Times hanging around, because I like looking at it – it has the Obamas taking up nearly all of the front page, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue with enormous smiles on their faces. They look…extraordinary. Any doll would give its left arm to look that good.

Bill Moyers talked to Patricia Williams and Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Friday. He reminded Harris-Lacewell that when he talked to her last spring she said Obama couldn’t win. I remembered that, once he mentioned it, and I remember the despairing pang it gave me. Harris-Lacewell beamed acknowledgement, and then talked about the intense sense of connection to this country that she felt for the first time in her life. Same here. Same here, same here, same here. One feels as if old wounds and old divisions really do have a good chance of being healed. (I know that sounds soppy – but it’s not sheer airy-fairy fantasy – see the doll experiment!) Furthermore…for the first time in my life I know what it’s like to feel ‘patriotic’ – the idea is suddenly no longer alien. I sang along with Aretha on Tuesday (and I wanted to wear her hat). I suddenly realized today that I don’t even mind American flag pins any more – I don’t have to any more – because they don’t stand for things I hate any more. Now they stand for closing Guantanamo and banning torture and respecting the rule of law.

On a more prosaic but still not altogether trivial level, I also no longer have to cut the sound whenever the BBC or NPR cuts to the president talking; on the contrary, I get to listen with actual pleasure.

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