A Conversation with Malcolm Gladwell: Revisiting Brown v. Board

Malcolm Gladwell is the best-selling author of books that explore the implications of behavioral science research on our lives and society. His books include Outliers, The Tipping Point, and What the Dog Saw. Last year, he launched a new podcast, Revisionist History, which recently began its second season. The podcast is dedicated to taking a closer look at the past, and Gladwell’s treatment of the events and people he examines is often informed by behavioral science. In the interview below, we discuss a recent episode which revisited the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate the American school system. Gladwell contends that the ruling was flawed because the Supreme Court’s decision was based too much on the psychological harm that segregation caused and not enough on the structural inequality that continues to this day.

Dave Nussbaum: You’re well-known for psychology and behavioral science writing and story-telling. Your new podcast, Revisionist History, which is starting its second season, takes a bit of a different angle. Tell me about that.

Malcolm Gladwell: The point of Revisionist History is that it’s supposed to be eclectic. I think it works if it’s eclectic and doesn’t work if it’s not. So, as opposed to another very popular and very good podcast called Invisibilia—which is squarely about psychology and about relating ideas about psychology to things in our world; that’s their DNA—mine is deliberately intended to be the opposite. I want things to be sometimes serious, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes frivolous, sometimes unnecessarily provocative, sometimes deeply thoughtful.

DN: I certainly noticed that—whether it’s about why people won’t shoot a free throw in basketball underhanded or how people react incorrectly to a stuck accelerator pedal—your perspective on all sorts of stories is infused with behavioral science. Is there anything coming up that tackles behavioral science more directly?

MG: [Episode 3,] “Ms. Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment,” is very much about that. It’s a re-examination of the Brown decision, which is formally a legal document but famously relied on social science to reach its conclusions. [In the episode,] I’m really examining the social science at the core of it and saying that the social science argument that the court made was wrong—or at least was painfully and tragically incomplete. There’re are million really important questions that arise out of the general re-examination of Brown that’s gone on, and one of them is that social science arguments are incorporated into public policy often at social science’s peril.

It’s really easy for public policy people to get it wrong, or to misunderstand what the science is telling them, or to twist the findings of researchers. To me, the great appeal of social science has always been that research is not definitive. It’s always posing a proposition to be debated. That’s not the way the rest of the world is; the rest of the world wants very definitive answers. And Brown is a really good example of this. Let’s face it: The social science that the court used in the Brown case is pretty flimsy social science—it is not psychology at its best.

To draw the sweeping conclusion that the court did—that unless black kids can sit next to white kids in a classroom they can’t get an education—is nonsense!

DN: Absolutely. So, if I’m correct in understanding your argument, one way to think about it is that there’s a misalignment between the remedy the court applies in the Brown decision and the complaint itself?

MG: Yes, that’s part one. The court, for its own peculiar reasons, wanted to claim that black people, as a result of segregation, had suffered a kind of grievous and catastrophic psychological injury. And I’m sorry, that’s just not true.

Were there black people harmed by segregated schools? Yes—although I’m not sure whether it was the fact of segregation or the fact of institutional racism and inadequate funding and general neglect that caused the injury. But to draw the sweeping conclusion that the court did—that unless black kids can sit next to white kids in a classroom they can’t get an education—is nonsense! It sets you down a path that, as I detail in the episode, gets really problematic really fast. They compound the problem with their inattention to the details under which integration is executed.

DN: I’d like to pause on the psychology, because I think it’s really interesting. I agree that the Clarks’ research, [which finds that black children prefer white dolls to black ones] is problematic, because it places the injury internal to the person. But I’d like to push back a little. You say in the episode that the Browns thought that their school, Monroe, was a good school—they just wanted the right to enroll in the white school, Sumner. You argue that the Supreme Court instead says, no, it’s not a good school, it’s inherently inferior. I don’t think that’s quite fair. Monroe may very well have been an excellent school, better than Sumner, but the argument as I understand it is that as good a school as it is, when the law says that students who are black must go there and not Sumner, that carries a cost. It may not damage them irreparably, but it causes harm. It’s not the inferior school that’s causing the injury; it’s the system and how black students are being treated under the law.

MG: Yeah, I don’t know if I disagree with you. No one is disputing that segregation was a heinous policy with far-reaching ramifications; the question is where do you locate the harm of segregation? And the court chose to locate the harm squarely inside the hearts and psyches of black children, whereas I would locate the harm in the world. I would say that the harm is located in the structure of laws and institutions that have the effect of systematically inhibiting and disempowering African Americans.

That may sound like a minor distinction. It is not. It’s a fundamental distinction. And particularly when you understand that it is the deliberate strategy of Southern whites to try and shift the racial conversation from institutions and political structures to hearts and minds. They’re trying to do that because they understand that if we can locate the argument entirely inside black people’s psyches, then we can leave institutional structures in place that systematically disenfranchise African Americans.

So this seemingly subtle difference that we’re discussing has a kind of nefarious intent. And the court’s indifference to that nefarious intent is what drives me crazy and what I think ultimately proves so problematic. It’s because they’re locating the problem inside the hearts and minds of black kids that they can’t focus on teachers.* That’s the crucial thing.

*Editor’s note: The episode details the benefits black students receive from having black teachers. It also explores how the Supreme Court decision, while it integrated students, barely mentioned teachers. As a result, the ranks of black teachers were decimated.

DN: Agreed, but it feels like we’re overlooking the feasibility of winning the case using a structural argument. Legal strategy is well beyond my expertise, but it seems like they made a choice to pursue an argument that would convince the court. It didn’t seem obvious to me that they could have won making a structural argument, since that would involve taking power from people who would stand in their way.

MG: Many African-American intellectuals have looked back on that and said, “You know what, we would’ve been better off if they had not overturned Plessy v. Ferguson,” and, “You want to play separate and equal? Let’s really do separate and equal,” and call them on their bluff. Remember the precedent that was being overturned by Brown was the precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, [in 1896], which said that separate facilities for black people were fine so long as they were equal to those of white people. That was never the case in the South; there was separation without equality.

Like I said, many black intellectuals have subsequently said, “Look maybe what the court should’ve done in Brown in 1954 is say, ‘Alright, let’s actually do separate and equal—prove to me they’re equal before we go any further. Let’s start by equalizing funding. Let’s go down the list. If you want to have a separate law school for white people in the state of Texas then you have to prove to me that every element in the black law school is the equivalent of the white law school.’” That strikes me as being both a radical and a doable argument, at least in the short term. And then when you have equality—real equality—then you take the next step, and remove [segregation]. I’m not entirely convinced that would’ve been the right way to go—but I think that is an argument worth hearing.

They understand that if we can locate the argument entirely inside black people’s psyches, then we can leave institutional structures in place that systematically disenfranchise African Americans.

DN: That’s a really interesting question, whether you could get meaningful equality in the context of segregation. For me, this is where the structural issues become interwoven with the psychology. For example, we have no problem with all sorts of segregation. We segregate school children by age, and this makes perfect sense to us because that segregation is pragmatic and doesn’t carry any meaning. As a social psychologist, I wouldn’t focus on the damage done to a person’s psyche, the way the Brown lawyers did for legal reasons, but rather on the burden of existing within a context that treats you as inferior. Other people’s beliefs, especially when they determine your outcomes, matter a great deal.

MG: The strategies of a social science-driven understanding of how to relieve racial injustice are different from the legal strategies. Many black intellectuals have subsequently said we should’ve gone for equal before we try to undo separate. One of the primary reasons is it would have essentially called the bluff of the white establishment. The faster way to undo separate is to fight first for equal.

Maintaining separate school systems for blacks and whites in the south was very expensive, and they were able to maintain those systems only if they impoverished the black half. That’s what made it economically palatable to taxpayers in rural and urban southern school districts. They’re running two systems. It’s not cheap. And they get away with it by not giving any money to the black half. If you came along and said, “You have to fund the black half the same as you fund the white half,” you effectively force integration. But you force them to integrate themselves, as opposed to doing it from above, which is much more politically perilous. That’s part of the calculation. They’re making an argument about political expediency as much as they’re making an argument about principle.

So we’re back to this idea that policy questions and social science questions run on different tracks. I’m not saying we should never mix them, of course we should—but it gets complicated when you mix them. You’ve got to decide, what am I trying to do here? Am I trying to win a political battle, as expeditiously and expediently as possible, or am I trying to make a larger moral argument about race and society?

I thought the attempt to make a moral argument self-evidently failed. The backdrop for this whole conversation is that the strategy that was taken to integrate American schools, judged 50 years later, was a failure. You can’t point to any part of this and say, wow, what an amazing transformation we undertook! Under those circumstances, it’s useful to think about what alternate strategies might have worked better.

DN: This speaks to integration of structure and psychology. When they have a black teacher, black students are much less likely to be suspended and are more likely to get into the gifted program. But we don’t yet know what’s happening psychologically. Do the black teachers open doors, or do they motivate or inspire students? Are they overcoming implicit or explicit prejudice? Structures matters, but whatever they’re doing plays out psychologically. It’s one thing to say, be careful using social science to affect policy—but do you have any thoughts on careful in what way? Where should social scientists pause? Who should they be talking to so that they’re not coming into it blind, running into the perils you describe?

MG: I’ll give a very small example. I talk in the episode about the literature that shows, as you just alluded, that when a black student has a black teacher, a number of educational outcomes become more positive. More likely to be in a gifted or talented program, less likely to be suspended, more likely to graduate, higher GPA, etc. You just said we don’t have a proper understanding of what’s going on there. That’s opportunity number one for social science. It’s 2017. This has been an active, open wound in American society since 1954. Maybe it’s time for social science to answer that question for us.

The second thing I would say is that I was more than interested to discover how much of the work on these effects—which in education they call “same race effects”—has been done by economists. If I’m a social psychologist, the economists are eating my lunch. They’re doing very persuasive, very elegant studies using these data sets that come out of the education reform movement. The economists are the first to jump on it. I feel like that is rich hunting ground for social psychologists as well, and they can bring a perspective to the analysis of that data that the economist can’t.

I’m not criticizing the work that’s been done by economists, but if you read it, you will notice that there is a beat that’s missing—they’re economists, so they come at it from a different perspective. I would love to see social psychologists go over that same data and interpret it their way. And that again would be something that would be insanely useful to the conversation we have in this country about how to make schools better.

You’ve got to decide, what am I trying to do here? Am I trying to win a political battle, as expeditiously and expediently as possible, or am I trying to make a larger moral argument about race and society?

DN: In a sense, economists are much better suited for dealing with these big data sets. It’s incumbent on psychologists to figure out how to do that or collaborate with economists. But economists don’t necessarily care about the mechanisms, as long as there’s a difference. The problem then becomes, where’s that difference coming from? Is it about having someone that cares about you, regardless of race? Or is it about seeing someone like me in a position of authority, or seeing that person-like-me be successful?

These suggest very different policy solutions that all get swept under the rug if we ignore the mechanism. Speaking on behalf of psychologists, there is a lot of work that explores these questions, but interventions, doing experiments in the field, have been limited. These big data sets are wonderful, but they also don’t allow you to look into people’s minds very effectively.

MG: This is a wonderful example of how interdisciplinary research could really move public understanding. You have an opportunity here. There are three ways in. The economists can look at the data set and describe the phenomenon with real precision. The psychologist can look at that same data and give us possible mechanisms—why is it happening? And then there is a role here for the sociologist, or even the anthropologist, to go in and, in a fine-grained way, to describe the experience of the participants.

What I’ve found very compelling in doing this podcast episode was that there were enormous numbers of oral histories done over the last 30 to 40 years, and I drew on some of them. Interviews done in the 60s and 70s with black teachers, talking about the experience of being a teacher moving from an all-black school to a white school. That stuff—very anecdotal, very individual, placed alongside psychological accounts of mechanism and economic accounts of exactly what happened—that stuff is really powerful. Those three things in combination, I think, can tell you something really important.

DN: To shift gears back to the podcast, I’m curious what’s coming up next?

MG: I have seven more episodes, all done and ready to go. I have three more on race and civil rights, telling stories from the early days, the 50s not the 60s. Two are criminal justice stories and one is about what it meant to be a black lawyer in Georgia in 1959.

Then I have a very frivolous piece about french fries. I have a really fun piece about emotion and music; it talks about the difference between country music and rock ’n’ roll, and the way they deal with emotion. Music that comes out of an enclosed, close-knit world is qualitatively, profoundly different from music that comes from a very diverse, open world. That’s the essence of the difference between country and rock ’n’ roll. I use the example of the saddest country song of all time to talk about how it could never have been a rock ’n’ roll song. Rock ’n’ roll is just incapable of speaking that kind of emotional language.

The last piece is all about science. It’s about a son who betrayed his father’s career. He had participated in a bit of research that undermined everything his father had spent his career doing. It’s all about what is the responsibility of a scientist to evidence and, more importantly, what is the responsibility of a son to a parent? That’s how we end the season. It’s a very personal piece and sort of unexpectedly moving. It starts out with you thinking it’s a very dry piece about academia, and it ends up being a very moving story about a son’s relationship with his father. It’s highly eclectic, and there are all kinds of interesting things yet to happen.

DN: And beyond the podcast, is there anything in the works that goes back to behavioral science?

MG: Yes. I’ve started a new book, and it very explicitly comes out of the world of psychology. There was a paper that Lee Ross wrote 50 years ago, maybe 45 years ago, called “Shortcomings of the Intuitive Psychologist.” It’s a famous paper, and I’m tearing off a little, tiny piece of that argument and having fun with it.

DN: And what piece is that?

MG: I’m interested in how we deal with strangers. How good are our intuitive ideas about dealing with strangers? I haven’t thought it through entirely, but I’m fascinated by what it means to deal with someone who you don’t know and, most importantly, whose credibility you cannot assess easily. Strikes me as a very contemporary problem, and from a psychological perspective, super interesting. There’s just so much fantastic psychology on that question.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.