Speaking Volumes: Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma

May 9, 1997

E. Stina Lyon on Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma.

In 1962 1 arrived at a US university as a scholarship student from Sweden. One of the first courses I signed up for was entitled 'The Negro in American History". I chose this because my enthusiasm for everything American, be it James Dean or gingham curtains, was only marred by un-ease about racial intolerance. It was with some patriotic pride that I saw that one of the key texts was linked to a research project called An American Dilemma, coordinated by the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal. This long report on race, discrimination, poverty and the American creed, commissioned and funded by the Carnegie Foundation before the war, was, two decades later, still presented as the most comprehensive and informed analysis ever made of the economics and politics of racism in the US. Myrdal got across his social democratic and antiracist perspective starting with shared and self-professed value premises - a commitment to equality, universal rights and the justice of a free market. He then exposed the extent of its breach, and the consequences of this in conflict and economic stagnation. There were no excuses here, only straight questions raised by a mass of evidence. The vicious circle of discrimination was spelled out; poverty arising from discrimination bred further justification for discrimination, hate and exclusion. Clearly one side was justifying itself using powerful means to perpetuate the inequality, couched in assumptions bereft of all logic and reason.

Myrdal's personal "class journey" from rural poverty in a Swedish forest to adviser to US politicians, was as remarkable as his steady faith in two things: the capacity of "ordinary people", whatever their colour, class or persuasion, to contribute to their own progress and liberation, and the power of reason and evidence to guide the change necessary to accommodate the aspirations.

Like de Tocqueville, Myrdal combined, in his work on the US "negro", a curiosity about an admired but unknown nation, with an apparently arrogant outrage over its self-righteous claims to greatness. The thoroughness of his professionalism as an observer, made his work a classic for undergraduates.

The welfare state as Myrdal envisaged it has become a lost cause, and his works on development for economic democracy have been relegated to academic and political sidelines in the face of victorious global monetarism. The language in which we speak about race has changed, as has the confidence of white liberals in speaking about it. But much of the social reality of racism he describes has not. The American dilemma has if anything widened to become a more general characteristic of industrial societies with the rhetorics of democracy and the growth of economic wealth obscuring the nature of the denial of equality to large numbers of citizens.

When visiting the US later that year, I was stunned by the hostility to all things Swedish. It had nothing to do with Myrdal and his report. A tall, blonde and very white Swedish film star had just married that "black Jew", Sammy Davies Jnr. In my efforts to defend her, Myrdal's concept of "moral escape" and "the convenience of ignorance", and his analysis of "the latent violence of collective lies", helped me clarify things that otherwise would have been wholly incomprehensible.

E. Stina Lyon is principal lecturer in sociology, South Bank University.

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