Are Americans Really Champions of Racial Equality?

70 years after Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, it's time to let go of the idea that America's morality will overcome its history of discrimination.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In his speech at Selma last month, President Barack Obama highlighted the inconsistencies between America’s egalitarian ideals and its history of racial discrimination. He stressed, though, that Americans have sought to correct their behavior to conform to their ideals: “The American instinct requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shape up the status quo. That’s America. That’s what makes us unique.” The idea that America’s moral failures on race are ultimately redeemed by its egalitarian ideals was popularized by Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 work, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. The massive two-volume study has shaped the discussion of racial discrimination in the United States, from President Truman to President Obama.

Much of the impact of An American Dilemma stemmed from its impressive deployment of social science. The vast bulk of Myrdal’s project was devoted to presenting reams of data collected during his team’s three years of studying race relations in the United States. However, the idea that captured the nation’s imagination—that Americans are an exceptionally moral people whose history of racial discrimination is really one of moral failure and ultimate redemption—was not grounded in empirical social science research. Rather, it was an untested hypothesis intended both to motivate leading white Americans to address racial discrimination in the country and to burnish the image of the United States during the Second World War.

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.

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In the summer of 1940, the United States was already informally engaged in the Second World War and appeared likely to soon become a formal belligerent. The Myrdals wanted to make clear to fellow Swedes that there was an inherent difference between modern-day Germans and Americans, and that the latter group was worthy of Swedes’ allegiance during the war. In writing Contact with America, they set out to disprove stereotypes about the United States that their fellow countrymen seemed to hold. In particular, they sought to explain that the U.S. was not just a heterogeneous group of people who treated racial minorities (particularly black Americans) as cruelly as Germans treated Jews. Rather, Americans (like Swedes) were a common folk united by egalitarian national ideals. They argued that, unlike Germans who discriminated against Jews, Americans were a morally conscious people who sought to correct their discrimination against black Americans to meet their egalitarian ideals. Americans, the couple explained, welcomed criticism of their race problem because they aspired to be a better people.

In 1941, the Myrdals returned to the United States and secluded themselves in Princeton, New Jersey, where Gunnar Myrdal wrote the final manuscript of the American project. Years later, he remembered the urgency they felt for writing the manuscript: “Particularly we Swedes were deeply conscious of the sufferings of young people in Europe. Many were killed in the war or became imprisoned, tortured or liquidated by the Nazis, while we were living here in beautiful Princeton. The work on the book became to us in a way our ‘war effort’ and our moral duty, where there could be no excuse for resting an hour.” By the time Myrdal returned to the United States, he viewed his American study as a war project. He would use the American Creed not only in order to motivate leading white Americans to take action, but also to present a positive image of Americans on the global stage.

Writing the final manuscript, he synthesized the team’s research on racial discrimination in the United States, but he also injected his untested hypothesis about white Americans. The first pages of An American Dilemma stated that the race problem in the United States was a moral issue: “The Negro is a ‘problem’ to the average American partly because of a palpable conflict between the status actually awarded him and those ideals.” Americans not only felt this tension, he argued, but also acted on it to create positive social change in the country. In the final chapter, he emphasized to his American readers the global significance of living up to their egalitarian ideals. However, he offered no empirical support for his conclusion that Americans experienced a moral dilemma at the sight of racial discrimination.

Reviewing Myrdal’s book, Howard University’s E. Franklin Frazier wrote: “One would certainly agree with the author in the sense that all social problems are moral problems. But it might be questioned whether the problem is on the conscience of white people to the extent implied in his statement of the problem.” Echoing Frazier in his own review of An American Dilemma, Yale University sociologist Maurice Davie reflected: “Though the treatment of the Negroes is without a doubt the greatest challenge to American democracy, the conscience of white America does not appear to be as aware and disturbed as Myrdal thinks it is from the rational moral standpoint.”

The University of North Carolina’s Ernest Campbell tested the hypothesis on nearly three hundred students at an un-disclosed public university in the South that was likely his own. “Gunnar Myrdal performed a disservice to our understanding of segregated social systems by his drastic simplification of the normative dimensions of the issue,” he concluded. “It seems apparent that the American Creed simply is not transmitted to many people as a set of values pertinent to racial issues. Further, a segregated system provides its own set of counter-norms, a rationale that justifies the system while it helps the actor in the system to compartmentalize or re-interpret the American Creed.” Yes, racial discrimination in the United States conflicted with the American Creed. And yet, Campbell’s study suggested that Americans did not necessarily experience any moral angst about the contradiction.

Late-twentieth-century sociologists peppered journal articles with doubts about Gunnar Myrdal’s claims. Nevertheless, the American public embraced this image of itself. Even today, with little reflection on whether it is true or not, Americans like to echo Myrdal’s hypothesis that they belong to a people whose moral compass drives them to address racial discrimination. When he spoke at Selma, President Obama perpetuated this theory. Over seventy years after the publication of An American Dilemma and in this moment of heightened reflection on racial discrimination in the United States, though, perhaps it is time for the American public to question that idea.

Myrdal’s theory of Americans as a moral people who champion racial equality may seem harmless. After all, much as Myrdal imagined, it might motivate Americans to achieve these ideals, and it can burnish the image of the United States abroad. But however comforting and flattering that image might be, and however politically useful it may prove on the domestic and global stages, it obscures harder truths. As Campbell discovered, many Americans felt that segregation was either irrelevant to, or consonant with, these basic principles. Instead of assuming, like Myrdal, that Americans will inevitably feel compelled to rectify racial discrimination to meet their egalitarian ideals, perhaps making progress on issues of race requires acknowledging that absent difficult discussions on what equality means in the U.S. and conscious organizing to bring it about, nothing will change at all.