When Thurgood Marshall was strategizing his legal attack on segregation in the public school system of Topeka, Kan., he asked psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark to repeat an experiment they had first conducted 20 years earlier in the 1930s.
In what has come to be known as the “Doll Test,” the Clarks handed African-American children two sets of dolls, one white and one Black. They then asked the children a number of questions, including “which doll looks the most like you” and “which doll is nice, which is bad?”
The overwhelming majority picked the white dolls as being both “nice,” and looking the most like them. From this, the Clarks deduced that the forced segregation of Jim Crow taught Black children to feel inferior. Marshall used this information in his powerful arguments to the Warren Court, and convinced the justices to overturn the principle of “separate but equal.”
Among other things, this case stands for the proposition that children are extremely impressionable, and that they will interpret messages in a completely different way than adults. They don’t have the mental acuity or sophistication to distinguish fact from fiction, nuance from clarity and are highly suggestible. That’s why they always used to say that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” because the first powerful influence on a child-its mother-leaves a lasting imprint.
So, however, do teachers. If those teachers start teaching lessons that encourage certain children to feel less valued and important, it doesn’t take a psychologist or a Supreme Court justice to realize the damage that’s being done. And that’s exactly what’s happening with this push in so many school districts to implement Critical Race Theory protocols and lesson plans. CRT is shorthand for a process by which white children are taught that their ancestors enslaved and persecuted the ancestors of their classmates “of color,” and that this is the reason that so many of those classmates face discrimination and — the left’s new favorite word — inequity.
It’s not that the message doesn’t have truth in it. Black and brown and immigrant groups have always been subject to discrimination in this society, and slavery casts a long shadow. Jim Crow was still in force when I was born, as my father could attest, and the imbalance in the criminal justice system is a reflection of generational inequality. The fact that populations of color are more likely to face the death penalty than white felons is just one example of the problems.
To attack CRT is not to attack history. But CRT is subversive, toxic and dangerous in that it doesn’t just teach about history. It points fingers at those who have no guilt, no investment in past abuses, no responsibility for their classmates’ pain, and no obligation to apologize. Children do not bear the mark of Cain. This is why so many parents are turning out for school board meetings. You just have to Google “Louden, Va.” and up pops a series of videos with men and women standing at the podium pleading with the school board members not to pursue policies that will make their children feel like strangers in their own classrooms.
Many supporters of CRT are trying to go on the counterattack, pretending that these policies are nothing more than an attempt to bring transparency to a discipline — history — which has long glossed over the suffering of minorities. CRT advocates push forcefully back against the suggestion that they are making white children feel bad about anything. But when you sit a third grader down and ask him to reflect upon what it means to be white, which is happening, and when you have discussions about “white privilege,” and when you divide kids into groups based on eye color and then give treats to the ones who have the preferred eye color just to show them how racism works, you are abusing that child.
In fact, you are doing as much damage to that child as any adult who uses his or her power advantage to influence thought, action and emotion. Those who have rightfully criticized the Catholic Church for past abuses should be applauding that assertion, although I have a strong suspicion that they won’t.
The takeaway from this column should not be that we “cover up” the past. I, as much as anyone, agree with Santayana that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. But, ironically, repeating the past is exactly what the CRT advocates are doing when they insert damaging and fraudulent theories of privilege and race into a classroom where children are captives to the whims of woke adults.
It was heartbreaking that Black children were forced to feel inferior to their white classmates. It would be equally heartbreaking if, 70 years later, we simply reverse the skin color of the victims.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times, and can be reached at email@example.com.