January 30, 2022
There’s a classic experiment in the 1940s that unmasked the true depth of racism in America. Two psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, gave black children in New York City four baby dolls, two with dark skin and two with light skin. Then the researchers asked the kids to pick the “good” dolls and the “bad” dolls. The black children generally saw the white dolls as good and black dolls as bad. The experiment was later used to convince the Supreme Court to hear the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1951.
The black doll experiment has been repeated numerous times, well into the 21st century, and still results in gut-wrenching displays of the internalized white supremacy in black children. (Just watch a few on YouTube.) The demonstration has an added value as our attention returns to the Supreme Court and the issue of race, and the coming vacancy of Justice Stephen Breyer. President Biden has said he would nominate a black women to the bench. That means something to the little black girls in Harlem that picked the white doll.
Racism takes many forms. We easily associate it with cross-burning Klansmen and “Whites Only” signs from the Jim Crow days. But it can be a slight as a clutched purse when a black man steps on an elevator, or as insidious as predatory lending from banks who prey on black and brown people. We see it in the causal commentary about “Mexican immigrants” and the bloody tally as hate crimes rise.
But it is also present in absence. For every black boy who has never seen a male teacher who looked like him, or for every Asian girl who as never seen an Asian woman in the media portrayed as anything other than “exotic,” representation is a game changer. We white people never notice this because, quite literally, there are people who look like this in every filed we can imagine. A white fish doesn’t know it’s in water until you take it out of the damn water.
That gets coded as “white is normal,” and every other race is the exception. You don’t have to say, “white person.” You can just say “person,” because their whiteness is assumed (as is their maleness). In the nearly 233 years of the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s pretty much been a nonstop sea of white people. That changed in 1967, when President Johnson swore in Thurgood Marshall, who was on the bench until 1991, when he was succeeded by Clarence Thomas and his Pepsi can. Thomas, hasn’t exactly been a civil rights lion, not even offering an opinion until the 2003 Virginia v. Black cross-burning case.
But race is not gender and blackness is not femaleness. Representation is an intersectional matter. Just like there are no actual afro-Caribbeans in Lin-Manuel’s film, In the Heights, (a musical about an afro-Caribbean neighborhood in New York), there have been no black women on the high court. While you might find plenty of black female judges in local courtrooms, 80% of federal judges are white and black women magistrates make up a tiny sliver of the remaining 20%. The addition of a black woman would not only be meaningful to those little black girls (and the thousands of black female attorneys), but it would make a difference to the non-black people, too.
The subtle prejudice of absence is in the lack of affirmation. People thought blacks could never be faster than whites, until Jesse Owens was. People thought a black man could never win the presidency, until Barak Obama did. People thought that a black person could never become a billionaire, until BET founder Robert L. Johnson made it. The Supreme Court is the brain trust of our democracy. The absence of black women sends a subtle message about they capabilities.
The white supremacists over at Fox News are already having a field day, playing the “reverse racism” card to their elderly white audience. The rhetoric goes like this; If Biden picks a black woman for the court, he’s screwing a capable white man out of a job. I wonder how many capable black women have been screwed out that job so a white person and/or a man could be hired. But the white snowflakes are apoplectic over the thought that a black women might have an informed opinion on constitutional matters more rooted in reality than something they heard spewed by Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, Ted Cruz or any of the other white men who, in the words of James Brown, are talking loud and saying nothing.
As we head into Black History Month we can underestimate the power of firsts. The first black airline pilot (Marlon Green, 1964). The first black pole vaulter to medal at the Olympics (LoJo Johnson, 2000). The first black woman in space (Mae Jamison, 1992). Second and thirds are equally important. Like the court was made up of all white men from 1789 to 1967, there may be a future court where all nine justices are black women. Until then, whoever President Biden picks, will be a reminder to those little black girls to pick the doll that looks like them.