March24, 1999

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Challenging the U.S. Conscience 

By Caroline Hendrie

A Swedish scholar, Gunnar Myrdal, pointed out the chasm betweeen American ideals and the reality of racial segregation.

As the United States waged war in Europe against fascism, a leading European intellectual issued a clarion call for America to mount a similar battle on the homefront: a crusade against racism. Published in 1944, Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy was never a best seller. But its influence on U.S. opinionmakers was profound.

By underscoring the contradiction between American democratic ideals and their betrayal by the accepted realities of racial segregation and subordination, the book represented a forceful challenge to the national conscience.

"Its very size, range, and completeness made its findings seem almost inarguable," writes Richard Kluger in Simple Justice, his 1976 history of the struggle against school segregation that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education.

Coming a decade before the Supreme Court's historic 1954 decision, the book became instant fodder for the lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who were chipping away at state-sanctioned segregation. And that the high court took notice of it was undeniable: An American Dilemma was one of a handful of social science works cited by the justices in a famous footnote to the Brown decision supporting their conclusion that segregation damaged black schoolchildren.

An American Dilemma was the product of a two-year research study commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and overseen by Myrdal, a Swedish academic who went on to win the 1974 Nobel Prize in economics. Dozens of researchers contributed to the project, and Myrdal received substantial writing assistance from two close collaborators. The result was exhaustive analysis that surveyed the social, political, educational, and economic plight of African-Americans, with special emphasis on the South.

'Vicious Circle' of Bias

Myrdal concluded that blacks were victims of a caste system that had been perpetuated since slavery by a "vicious circle" of discrimination. "White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners, and morals," he argued in the book. "This, in turn, gives support to white prejudice. White prejudice and Negro standards thus mutually 'cause' each other."

But as he surveyed America a decade before Brown, Myrdal saw unmistakable signs of change. As World War II rekindled the nation's pride in its democratic traditions, he predicted that the "American creed"--a deep belief in equality, freedom, justice, and opportunity--would triumph over racial bigotry in a generation.

Myrdal, who died in 1987, came to see his prediction as overoptimistic. But 30 years after An American Dilemma's publication, he regarded the "great progress" that had been made as evidence that America was moving "in the right direction" to solve its great dilemma.

Read excerpts from An American Dilemma, first published in 1944, from Africa 2000, a resource for demographic issues.

Read "Shifting Challenges: Fifty Years of Economic Change Toward Black-White Earnings Equality," excerpted from An American Dilemma Revisited: Race Relations in a Changing World, by Ronald F. Ferguson. USIA Electronic Journal: Society and Values, Vol. 2, No. 3, August 1997.

PHOTO: In 1944, economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal published An American Dilemma, a book based on a two-year research project looking at the conditions under which African-Americans lived in the United States. The book became fodder for lawyers working to stop state-sanctioned segregation.
--Corbis Bettmann

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 © 1999 Editorial Projects in Education Vol. 18, number 28, page 29