The Bad News About Latin, Guys and Dolls, Backtalk Before Breakfast, and Other Matters. The Esteem Team

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The days go by, and the self-esteem man never writes. Oh, sure, he was fast enough at producing an aggrieved letter to the editor of FORTUNE (published in the last issue), complaining about our generally downbeat appraisal (July 20) of his California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. But he still hasn't provided the info promised in our telephone conversation, wherein yours truly kept doubting that government at any level could raise the average moper's self-esteem and the task forcer kept promising to send us evidence that it could too. Meanwhile, we have been looking on our own into the literature on self- esteem and sense that the field has a bit of potential. We observe, for example, that this year's convention of the American Psychological Association (it takes place in New York between August 28 and September 1) will feature three papers on self-esteem. It also turns out that self-esteem research has already played a role in American history. Specifically, it had a bit part in the momentous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down segregation in public education. Here we allude to the famous Kenneth Clark doll tests, which endeavored to gauge the effects of segregation on the self-esteem of black kids. The court found the tests persuasive and mentioned them as a reason (not the only one, to be sure) for its broad conclusion that separate-but-equal schooling was ''inherently unequal.'' In the tests, young black children from a segregated Southern school were shown both black and white dolls and asked which they preferred. A majority said they preferred the white dolls. Clark's conclusion, cited by the court: ''These children . . . have been definitely harmed in the development of their personalities.'' Presumed cause of their low self-esteem: segregation. In 1960, however, a critic of Clark's studies published a fascinating article in the Villanova Law Review. The article, by Professor Ernest van den Haag (he is now based at Fordham University), reviewed the studies and agreed that, indeed, a majority of black kids in segregated Southern schools had preferred the white dolls. Van den Haag expressed some doubt about whether doll tests in general prove anything about self-esteem. But if they do, he argued rather plausibly, then surely Clark should have told the Court about some other doll tests he had performed -- on young black children in unsegregated Northern schools. These tests, never reported to the Supreme Court, showed that the Northern kids also preferred the white dolls. In fact a higher proportion of the Northern kids preferred them. Since the Court would obviously have reached its basic judgment without Clark's test data, the tests it didn't know about ultimately change nothing. The whole story also leaves unchanged our own original perspective on self- esteem research. To be sure, we may be turned around by tomorrow's mail. Anything's possible.