Renowned psychologist Kenneth Clark says he almost canceled his appearance before the annual meeting of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. last night, explaining that in the wake of the verdict in the Rodney King case, he found it impossible to deliver a message of optimism and support to a group dedicated to an issue like fair housing.
"I have just returned from Los Angeles," Dr. Clark, now retired after a long career teaching at the City University of New York, told the meeting at Temple Oheb Shalom, 7310 Park Heights Ave.
"I was so upset at what I was hearing and what was really going on in that area that I was almost tempted to write or call and say that I cannot psychologically come before your group and give a talk that was inspirational."
With that, the man whose work on the effect of segregation on black children was instrumental in the 1954 Brown decision by the Supreme Court that declared segregated schools unconstitutional admitted his pessimism about the issue of race in America before a 33-year-old group that has sought to further integrated housing in the Baltimore area.
"American racism is a deeply disturbing social disease that has its causes in American history," Dr. Clark said.
"What that jury was saying was that non-whites were really not worthy of being looked upon and treated as if they were humans. Americans have always had a lot of problems dealing with the extent to which Africa-Americans were, in fact, human beings."
Though Dr. Clark admitted he was no historian, he traced these conflicting views back to the times of slavery when whites debated whether or not blacks should be converted to Christianity or taught other knowledge on up through the Dred Scott decision that denied blacks any constitutional rights and the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that upheld segregated schools.
As a result, he said, black Americans have consistently received conflicting messages as to the extent that they will be allowed to participate in democratic institutions and that those same institutions will be used to further their repression. "It gets blacks confused," he said.
Dr. Clark noted that he and his colleagues had celebrated following the Brown decision. "We were full of euphoric optimism," he said, indicating that optimism turned out not to be justified. "We said all sorts of silly things that night."
He said he anticipated the verdict in the trial of the Los Angeles police officers accused of using excessive force in beating Mr. King after a high speed chase, a beating that was captured on videotape.
"On the way out to California, where I was going to make a speech, my good friend Bill Cosby accused me of being unnecessarily pessimistic. Bill was optimistic. I think that's because he is a comedian and he really thinks American racism can be diluted with humor. I don't believe that. We are dealing with deep, deep, deep hostilities that permit racism in this country.
"We should not be surprised with the verdict. Look at our cities and see the extent to which our inner cities have been allowed to deteriorate," he said. "I just don't know how honest this society can be in dealing with human beings that even today it does want to see as humans."
In an interview following the talk, Dr. Clark said he also anticipated the violent reaction to the verdict.
"If you don't treat people as human then they don't act human," he said. "The terrible irony is that they are really destroying what little that they have. It's the double tragedy of racism.
"Sure there has been some progress in the area of race, but only that which the white establishment will allow."
Dr. Clark said in his talk that he had found it difficult to answer the questions of a group of students at Baltimore's City College high school yesterday afternoon.
"I just couldn't bring myself to communicate the kind of optimism that someone my age should bring to young people in order to stimulate them to move on with courage in seeking justice."
Dr. Clark also expressed incredulity at the position of the Bush administration, blaming the riots in Los Angeles on the failure of social programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society.
"I found those to be extremely disturbing and embarrassing coming from a president," he said.