An American Dilemma

An American Dilemma

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An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy is a 1944 study of race relations authored by Swedish
Sweden
Sweden , officially the Kingdom of Sweden , is a Nordic country on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northern Europe. Sweden borders with Norway and Finland and is connected to Denmark by a bridge-tunnel across the Öresund....

 economist
Economist
An economist is a professional in the social science discipline of economics. The individual may also study, develop, and apply theories and concepts from economics and write about economic policy...

 Gunnar Myrdal
Gunnar Myrdal
Karl Gunnar Myrdal was a Swedish Nobel Laureate economist, sociologist, and politician. In 1974, he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Friedrich Hayek for "their pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the...

 and funded by The Carnegie Foundation
Carnegie Corporation of New York
Carnegie Corporation of New York, which was established by Andrew Carnegie in 1911 "to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding," is one of the oldest, largest and most influential of American foundations...

. The foundation chose Myrdal because it thought that as a non-American, he could offer a more unbiased opinion. Myrdal's volume, at nearly 1,500 pages, painstakingly detailed what he saw as obstacles to full participation in American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 society that American negroes
Negro
The word Negro is used in the English-speaking world to refer to a person of black ancestry or appearance, whether of African descent or not...

 faced as of the 1940s. Ralph Bunche
Ralph Bunche
Ralph Johnson Bunche or 1904December 9, 1971) was an American political scientist and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his late 1940s mediation in Palestine. He was the first person of color to be so honored in the history of the Prize...

 served as Gunnar Myrdal's main researcher and writer at the start of the project in the Fall of 1938.

It sold over 100,000 copies and went through 25 printings before going into its second edition in 1965. It was enormously influential in how racial issues were viewed in the United States, and it was cited in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education
Brown v. Board of Education
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 , was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 which...

case "in general." The book was generally positive in its outlook on the future of race relations in America
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, taking the view that democracy
Democracy
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law...

 would triumph over racism
Racism
Racism is the belief that inherent different traits in human racial groups justify discrimination. In the modern English language, the term "racism" is used predominantly as a pejorative epithet. It is applied especially to the practice or advocacy of racial discrimination of a pernicious nature...

. In many ways it laid the groundwork for future policies of racial integration
Racial integration
Racial integration, or simply integration includes desegregation . In addition to desegregation, integration includes goals such as leveling barriers to association, creating equal opportunity regardless of race, and the development of a culture that draws on diverse traditions, rather than merely...

 and affirmative action
Affirmative action
Affirmative action refers to policies that take factors including "race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or national origin" into consideration in order to benefit an underrepresented group, usually as a means to counter the effects of a history of discrimination.-Origins:The term...

.

Analysis


Myrdal believed he saw a vicious cycle in which whites oppressed negroes, and then pointed to negroes' poor performance as reason for the oppression. The way out of this cycle, he argued, was to either cure whites of the prejudice he believed existed, or to improve the circumstances of negroes, which would then disprove whites' preconceived notions. Myrdal called this process the “principle of cumulation."

In Black-White Relations: The American Dilemma, Junfu Zhang gives this description of Myrdal's work:
According to Myrdal, the American dilemma
Dilemma
A dilemma |proposition]]") is a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable. One in this position has been traditionally described as "being on the horns of a dilemma", neither horn being comfortable...

 of his time referred to the co-existence of the American liberal ideals and the miserable situation of blacks. On the one hand, enshrined in the American creed is the belief that people are created equal and have human rights; on the other hand, blacks, as one tenth of the population, were treated as an inferior race and were denied numerous civil and political rights. Myrdal's encyclopedic study covers every aspect of black-white relations in the United States up to his time. He frankly concluded that the "Negro problem" is a "white man's problem." That is, whites as a collective were responsible for the disadvantageous situation in which blacks were trapped.


Myrdal, writing before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, alleged that northern whites were generally ignorant of the situation facing negro citizens, and noted that "to get publicity is of the highest strategic importance to the Negro people." This proved, given the pivotal role played by the press in the movement, to be strikingly prescient.

American Creed


At the center of Myrdal's work in An American Dilemma was his postulate that political and social interaction in the United States is shaped by an "American Creed." This creed emphasizes the ideals of liberty, equality, justice, and fair treatment of all people. Myrdal claims that it is the "American Creed" that keeps the diverse melting pot of the United States together. It is the common belief in this creed that enables all people—white, negroes, rich, poor, male, female, and foreign immigrants alike—with a common cause and allows for them to co-exist as one nation.

Quotes


There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of white Americans desire that there be as few Negroes as possible in America. If the Negroes could be eliminated from America or greatly decreased in numbers, this would meet the whites' approval—provided that it could be accomplished by means which are also approved. Correspondingly, an increase of the proportion of Negroes in the American population is commonly looked upon as undesirable.

White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals. This, in its turn, gives support to white prejudice. White prejudice and Negro standards thus mutually ‘cause’ each other.

Further Reading

  • Ralph Ellison. "An American Dilemma: A Review" (1944)
  • Eric Foner
    Eric Foner
    Eric Foner is an American historian. On the faculty of the Department of History at Columbia University since 1982, he writes extensively on political history, the history of freedom, the early history of the Republican Party, African American biography, Reconstruction, and historiography...

     and John A. Garraty
    John A. Garraty
    John Arthur Garraty was an American historian and biographer. He specialized largely in American political and economic history....

    . "The Reader's Companion to American History", Houghton Mifflin
    Houghton Mifflin
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is an educational and trade publisher in the United States. Headquartered in Boston's Back Bay, it publishes textbooks, instructional technology materials, assessments, reference works, and fiction and non-fiction for both young readers and adults.-History:The company was...

    Company.
  • Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a country: race and the unfinished struggle for democracy (2004)