City Lit: Recasting the Couc

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In a class on psychoanalytic theory I took several years ago, I was struck by the professor’s long discourse on depression. It occurred to me that his interpretation of this common mental malady missed a crucial piece of analysis. How, I asked innocently, do factors like race, class and gender come into play?

With barely a flick of his hand, the instructor dismissed my question, as if to say that a person’s social milieu is completely irrelevant in these matters. I was aghast. If one believes that the most mundane aspects of family politics can conspire to shape the psychological contours of a child’s mind, how can poverty and racism carry no weight? I have had an elemental distrust of mainstream psychotherapy ever since.

What a relief, then, to read Children, Race and Power, detailing the work of the husband and wife team, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who helped revolutionize thinking on the psychological effects of racism and bigotry.

Kenneth Clark’s research tests in the 1950s, showing that black children had been socialized to prefer white dolls, helped to convince the Supreme Court of the harmful effects of segregated education in the seminal Brown vs. Board of Education case. The couple’s home base was Harlem’s Northside Center for Child Development, which last year celebrated its 50th anniver-sary. Children, Race, and Power tells the deceptively simple story of the Northside Center and describes its evolution from a diagnostic program for children believed to be “at risk of delinquency” to an innovative mental health center and advocacy organization.

The book’s authors, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, professors at the City University of New York, have written a fascinating history. Their efforts are especially laudable because they set Northside’s work in a political context. “From the beginning, Northside has been drawn into larger struggles around the place of education as a tool of repression and control,” the authors note. “Born as a response to the prevailing labeling of black children as stupid… [Northside] has sought to undermine such ideas both through its remedial program and its wider concern with institutional change in the school sys-tem.”

The book offers a nuanced understanding of New York City’s social welfare community and how it was buffeted by key intellectual struggles–from the ascendancy of Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure” to ongoing debates over racial integration and black nationalism.

The authors explain the Clarks’ belief that traditional approaches to psychotherapy might work fine for treating learning disorders and bad behavior among the middle class and affluent, but were ill-suited for children suffering from economic, social and racial deprivation.

Under the Clarks’ leadership, the staff at Northside wed tutoring and counseling, crafting an educational program for each child. Thus tutors worked with the children and their fam-ilies to help deal with problems like inadequate housing, domestic violence or drug addiction, while at the same time helping young people with their academic skills.

The staff took a similar approach to therapy. They would evaluate a teenager who was acting out by looking for classic signs of anxiety about relations with their parents, or about growing up. But they also coached the teenager on bread-and-butter issues such as improving their grades, getting a job and dealing with raging hormones. The staff treated black and Latino youth respectfully, integrating principles of community organizing throughout much of their work.

This approach initially rankled the pro-Freudian child welfare community, which saw race, class and gender inequities as irrelevant to mental health. The book traces a numbers of key battles the Clarks fought–including more than a few tussles with their affluent supporters in the philanthropic community–over treatment philosophy.

There was also controversy within the organization over the Clarks’ insistence that the staff be multi-racial. Some charged that the inclusion of whites caused Harlem residents to doubt Northside’s commitment to people of color, a controversy that became particularly volatile during the 1960s Black Power movement.

The authors also give us a front row seat on the internal debate between those advocating services benefiting individual clients and those advocating large-scale social change. Ultimately, in the 1970s, Northside became heavily involved in antipoverty efforts. The authors, culling material from scores of interviews and documents, give readers an intimate look into the politics and sense of urgency that mark each era in the Clarks’ battle to overcome racism.

The Clarks’ ideas about poverty and race may seem obvious today, particularly to those who are immersed in New York City’s social service culture. But they were revolutionary in their time and it is always instructive to see how leading thinkers maneuver to convert their ideas into conventional wisdom. The Clarks are inspiring examples of commitment and insight ahead of their time.

Eleanor Bader is a New York City freelance writer.