The “Doll Test” and the Damage of Segregation

The “Doll Test” and the Damage of Segregation April 16, 2024

The “Doll Test” of Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark uncovered the mental and emotional damage of segregation in the United States in 1950.

The landmark study helped influence the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that separating children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional.

Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark. The “Doll Test” and the damage of segregation
Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark.  Photo: Library of Congress

For those who think that “children don’t see color,” children certainly do, and they develop negative beliefs about race very, very young.

Published in the summer of 1950, their study, “Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children,” documented the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.

In the experiment, the Clarks showed two dolls, one white and the other black, to black children ages 3 to 7, and asked the children these questions:

  1. Give me the doll that you like to play with— like best.
  2. Give me the doll that is a nice doll.
  3. Give me the doll that looks bad.
  4. Give me the doll that is a nice color.
  5. Give me the doll that looks like a white child.
  6. Give me the doll that looks like a colored child.
  7. Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child.
  8. Give me the doll that looks like you.

A majority of the children in both the segregated south and the racially mixed north preferred the white doll. The children assigned positive characteristics to the white doll and responded negatively to the black doll.

The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem.

Of course, the opposite is true as well – whites in a segregated United States saw themselves as superior and treated African-Americans as inferior.

What has changed in 74 years?


Prejudice, discrimination and social segregation continue to create an environment of racist oppression for a portion of Americans.

Law enforcement’s use of “Stop and Frisk” policies across the country result in darker-skinned people being detained and questioned by police overwhelmingly more than light-skinned people.

Conservative courts and lawmakers continue to attack and dismantle hard won advancements for African Americans.

Without a hint of irony or self-awareness, racists who oppose everything Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for venerate him once a year on his birthday.

In a recent version of the experiment with children in Singapore, the results were disheartening, as we watch children select a white doll as superior and then are forced to recognize that the doll they just identified as bad looks most like them.

In every facet of society, racism impacts and poisons the lives of African Americans, diminishing the so-called American dream and isolates white people in comfortable bubbles of white supremacy.

If you have any doubts, conduct the experiment yourself.

Buy two identical black and white dolls and show them to children of any race, ask the same questions, and you’ll almost certainly receive the same answers.

Until the United States seriously addresses racism in our society, our nation’s ‘original sin’ of racism will continue to damage the lives of all Americans. This fact is so obvious, even a child can see it.


Jim Meisner, Jr. is the author of the novel Faith, Hope, and Baseball, available on Amazon, or follow this link to order an autographed copy. He created the Facebook page Faith on the Fringe.

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