Dark Ghetto: The Frustrations of Kenneth Clark
Encyclopedia.com reported: America’s schools did not suddenly integrate themselves the day after Brown v. Board of Education; in most urban areas the growth of black ghettoes only reinforced the segregation of black and white schoolchildren. Clark understood that in order to improve the education of students of color, the African American community as a whole needed to lobby for a massive infusion of capital and commitment from the federal government and from private citizens. After sparring unsuccessfully with the New York City Board of Education during the late 1950s over issues of segregation, Clark was given a unique opportunity to effect a wholesale reformation of the school system in Harlem. As part of the “Great Society” plans inaugurated by the administrations of President John F. Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, federal funds were provided in 1962 to create Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), the task of which was to study and suggest remedies for the causes of juvenile delinquency in the Harlem area.
Clark was appointed chairman of HARYOU, which over the next two years produced a 620-page report recommending, among other things, the “thorough reorganization of the schools” in Harlem. This would include increased integration, a massive program to improve reading skills among students, stricter review of teacher performance, and, most importantly, a high level of participation by the residents of Harlem in implementing these changes. HARYOU was the first example of what would later be known as a community-action program.
HARYOU was sabotaged by political power bargaining in New York, and few if any of its recommendations were followed. As Clark commented in the New Yorker, “As it turned out, all we did at HARYOU was to produce a document.” Clark’s community-based approach inspired many subsequent programs in the “War on Poverty,” but with few exceptions they too fell victim to the complexities of urban politics. Although his experience with HARYOU must be counted as a failure in terms of political reality, it did spur Clark to write the book for which he is best known, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. In this work, Clark goes beyond his HARYOU research to write what he describes in the introduction as “no report at all, but rather the anguished cry of its author”—an overview of black ghetto life that has become required reading in sociology classes around the country.
In 1967 Clark formed and presided over a nonprofit corporation known as MARC Corp. (the Metropolitan Applied Research Center), composed of a group of social scientists and other professionals who hoped to identify and solve problems of the urban poor. MARC’s most significant work was undertaken in 1970, when the school board of Washington, D.C., asked Clark and his associates to design a new educational program for the city’s 150,000 schoolchildren, 90% of whom were black and the majority of whom were poor.
In an era of radical social and political experimentation, the Washington, D.C. school system offered Clark the chance to test his theories of education on a large scale and under ideal conditions. Clark outlined a program similar to the HARYOU program for New York, calling for a massive and immediate upgrading of reading skills, teacher evaluation based on student performance, and community involvement in the schooling process.
Once again, however, real life proved far more complex than theory: the Washington, D.C. teachers refused to make their pay and position dependent on the outcome of student tests, and a new superintendent of schools (elected in 1971) refused to cooperate with the plan and even challenged Clark’s central thesis that children of the ghetto could and should be expected to perform at “normal” levels. Ghetto life, argued this administrator, was anything but normal, and it would be unfair to hold teachers and schools responsible for the performance of students handicapped by living in the ghetto.
Continued to Argue for Integration in Education
Such a claim flew in the face of everything Kenneth Clark had learned and fought for since he was a grade school student. It also contradicted the findings of Brown v. Board of Education: if ghetto children could not be held to the same standards as other children, then the schools they were attending were obviously not “equal.” Clark’s defeat at the hands of political reality did not dampen his belief in integrated schooling, however; nor did he cave in to the demands of the politically fashionable black separatist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He opposed the creation of any organization based on racial exclusivity, including such projects as a black dormitory at the University of Chicago and Antioch College’s Afro American Institute. As a result, Clark was attacked as a “moderate” at a time of black radicalism, in some instances receiving personal threats for his adamant rejection of racial separatism.
After his retirement from City College in 1975, Clark and his wife and children founded a consulting firm called Clark, Phipps, Clark & Harris, Inc., helping large corporations design and implement minority hiring programs. The firm flourished, attracting prestigious clients such as AT&T, Chemical Bank, and Consolidated Edison, and Clark remained active in the burgeoning field of minority concerns in the 1990s workplace.
Back in 1982, Clark admitted in the New Yorker that the educational outlook was poor for children of color. “Things are worse. In the schools… more black kids are being put on the dung heap every year.” His wife, Mamie, was even more frank, stating: “More people are without hope now….I really don’t know what the answer is.” Viewing this discouraging prospect eight years later, Clark admitted that even he was beginning to doubt the possibility of racial harmony through integration. “I look back and I shudder,” he told the Washington Post, “and say, ‘Oh God, you really were as naive as some people said you were.’”
With the commitment of U.S. president Bill Clinton’s administration to equalize opportunities for all Americans, Clark continued to voice his outrage over the country’s lack of educational progress—in academic, social, and psychological terms—but offered a mandate for change in the nineties. In a 1993 essay for Newsweek titled “Unfinished Business: The Toll of Psychic Violence,” Clark commented: “We have not yet made education a process whereby students are taught to respect the inalienable dignity of other human beings…. [But] social sensitivity can be internalized as a genuine component of being educated. This is nonviolence in its truest sense. By encouraging and rewarding empathetic behavior in all of our children—both minority and majority youth—we will be protecting them from ignorance and cruelty. We will be helping them to understand the commonality of being human. We will be educating them.” (source: encyclopedia.com)