Monday, April 13, 2015

what she is vs. what she pretends to be...,

theatlantic |  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 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 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.