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A Reconsideration of An American Dilemma

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 40, Number 4, December 2012
pp. 686-692 | 10.1353/rah.2012.0106

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In 1944—the same year that segregated American troops landed on the beaches of Normandy and Americans back home mobilized to distinguish American democracy from the Third Reich—Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy was first published. In two-volumes, Myrdal explained how a modern democracy like the United States could socially engineer a solution to a perceived racial problem, and in the process, distinguish itself from the Third Reich’s treatment of its so-called “Jewish problem.”

Myrdal stated that black Americans were not to blame for the “Negro Problem” and that its solution was not the expulsion or segregation of this group from mainstream society. He shifted his readers’ attention away from ongoing national conversations on black Americans’ “pathology” and moved their awareness towards a newer transatlantic conversation on the pathology of the aggressor. He explained that the “Negro problem” was in the minds of white Americans, and that it was largely a moral dilemma. Myrdal wrote that whites in the United States needed to analyze how their discriminatory behavior towards blacks fell short of the American creed of “liberty, equality, justice, and fair opportunity for everybody” and to correct this behavior. The ever-hopeful social engineer, he urged his readers not only to change their individual actions, but to mobilize the federal government to dismantle institutional segregation and discrimination that subordinated black Americans to white Americans. Only then, Myrdal explained, would white Americans find a solution to their moral crisis—or rather, their “Negro problem.”

Two years later, U.S. President Harry S. Truman established a Committee on Civil Rights; and the following December, the Committee published its report, To Secure These Rights, which noted the many restrictions on black Americans, and urged that all Americans should have equal opportunities for education, decent housing, and jobs. Scholars have noted that this 1947 report “adopted the analytical framework and endorsed the conclusions set forth in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, published just three years earlier,”1 particularly in its claim that segregation and discrimination were barriers that undermined black Americans’ equal rights and that the federal government had a role to play in enforcing these rights.

In 1950, the prominent American sociologist Louis Wirth argued that An American Dilemma was “leading American social scientists to focus their research on issues of prejudice and attitude formation.”2 In 1955, Chicago sociologist Ernest W. Burgess declared that Myrdal’s book had been of “first importance” in recent “epoch-making advances in the field of race relations.” He considered An American Dilemma “the most powerful instrument of action in the field of race relations since Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”3 With hindsight, Myrdal’s study has been heralded as the “most celebrated study of American race relations” and the “single most important study of American race relations of the 1940s.”4

Yet even while acknowledging the book’s vast significance throughout American society, Americans have largely associated Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma with a singularly significant moment in public memory: the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the subsequent movement to integrate public schools in the Southern United States. In this iconic case, the Supreme Court prominently cited An American Dilemma and other relevant social science studies on black Americans as crucial support for its decision to overrule prevailing legal precedent and to hold that laws sanctioning segregated public school education were unconstitutional. Responding to Myrdal’s call to dismantle the different institutional elements in the U.S. that segregated and subordinated blacks, the Supreme Court explained that segregated public school education proved to be a form of discrimination that treated blacks and whites unequally, and thus violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Federal Constitution.

Soon after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision, Myrdal’s study became a lightning rod in the national debate on school integration and became forever associated with the federal government’s efforts to integrate public schools in the South. One scholar has noted that white segregationists in the South and the Radical Right “had largely shunned Myrdal’s book before the Brown decision, [but] after 1954 the...



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