Americans today are quite aware of racial discrimination, but even a half-century after the civil rights movement, still uncertain how to address it. An American Dilemma popularized a flattering image of the American people, but its description of the American approach to race was an untested theory. Seventy years later, the public conversation on race continues to rely on an approach grounded more in wishful thinking than in hard fact.
Commissioned and funded by the Carnegie Corporation, An American Dilemma, 1,483 pages long, presented empirical data on African Americans that had been amassed by the Swedish project director and his team of over seventy social scientists between 1938 and 1941. When it was published in 1944, people took notice. Within a year, An American Dilemma went through four editions. Shorter summaries of the two-volume study were published, reviewed in newspapers, and sold to the American public.
Readers and reviewers largely latched on to two central claims in the book. First, they took notice of Myrdal’s assertion that black Americans’ inferior status was principally caused by whites’ discrimination; and that if Americans wanted to correct this problem, they simply needed to cease discriminating. They also took note of Myrdal’s glowing view of Americans. He asserted that Americans were a particularly “moralistic and ‘moral-conscious’” people with a shared “American Creed of liberty, equality, justice, and fair opportunity for everybody.” Americans would ultimately correct their discriminatory behavior toward black Americans, because they were a moralistic people who cared deeply about equality.
As he prepared the final manuscript, Myrdal collected countless studies and memoranda illustrating the leading role of racial discrimination in creating racial differences in the United States. He commissioned original memoranda from over forty leading social scientists on topics including racial stereotypes, patterns of racial segregation, and black labor.
During the early years of the study, Myrdal also began to give thought to the way that he would synthesize this mountain of information into a final manuscript of his own. Since the goal of the project was to produce a solution to the race problem, he took particular note of the group of Americans he thought had power to effectuate change in the country: elite, white northerners. He hypothesized that these Americans viewed the race problem as a conflict between actual practice and “the American state religion” of justice, equality, and freedom. He intended to write a manuscript with their value system in mind. He hoped to motivate them to abandon all the forms of racial discrimination that he planned to outline in the book.
By the time Myrdal began work on the manuscript a few months later, though, the Third Reich had invaded neighboring Denmark and Norway. That spring of 1940, the Myrdals left an unfinished study in the United States to return to Sweden and await their country’s fate. During their yearlong sojourn in Scandinavia, Gunnar Myrdal and his collaborator and wife, Alva, wrote a pro-American propaganda book: Kontakt med Amerika (Contact with America). It is little known to Americans, because it has not yet been translated from the Swedish. In it, though, Myrdal first developed his thoughts on the “American state religion” and termed it “the American Creed.” It also illuminates the wartime dimensions of Myrdal’s incorporation of the American Creed into An American Dilemma.