Analyzing "Detreimental Psychological Harm": Social Science Evidence and Segregation in the Supreme Court Post-1950

Open Access
McKenna, Sarah Ann
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Dr. Michael James Milligan, Thesis Supervisor
  • Dr. Cathleen Denise Cahill, Honors Advisor
  • US Supreme Court
  • Psychology
  • Constitutional History
  • Psychological Harm
  • Segregation
  • Amicus Briefs
  • Social Science Evidence
  • Twentieth Century
  • Twenty-First Century
  • Vinson Court
  • Warren Court
  • Roberts Court
During several school desegregation cases heard in the Supreme Court since 1950, social science research was utilized as critical evidence in a number of amicus briefs. However, the nature and focus of this research continuously fluctuated largely due to the absence of a concrete definition of social science. In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate Jim Crow practices in graduate education using subtle references to the detrimental psychological harms brought on by segregation, yet the supporting literature was not directly cited. A changing tide occurred in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) when the Supreme Court emphasized the detrimental psychological harms in its ruling that state-mandated segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Following Brown, there was a critical shift in social science research interest. The field shifted from emphasizing the psychological harms of segregation to highlighting the educational benefits of desegregation. This shift was reflected in the segregation cases and social science research that fell under consideration in the Supreme Court once again in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007). But this time, the Majority Opinion was unconvinced by the social science evidence. This thesis seeks to discover the influence social science evidence had in each of these cases by closely studying several critical amicus briefs, how a number of the Justices interpreted and responded to such research, and the criticisms directed at social science evidence that arose following the decisions. Along with chronicling the progression of social science research on school diversity and desegregation, this thesis also analyzes how relevant social science was to each case and why it was employed to advance the cause of desegregation.