American Dilemma Research Paper

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Published in 1944, amid the massive destruction and racial genocide of World War II (1939–1945), An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, by the Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal (1898–1987), not only challenged America’s democratic principles but also offered firm testament to their promise. Myrdal’s epic study has framed racial discourse for more than half a century. Consistent with the times, Myrdal’s research team included some of the leading black intellectuals of the era—Ralph Bunche (1904–1971), Kenneth Clark (1914–2005), E. Franklin Frazier (1894–1962), Charles S. Johnson (1893–1956), and Ira Reid (1901–1968)—who were forced by custom and discrimination to work as his racial, if not intellectual, subordinates.

Myrdal saw the American race problem as a moral dilemma, concluding that legal segregation and the racial caste system were inconsistent with the American creed and its commitment to freedom, equality, and democracy. For Myrdal, one solution was located in the American system of education. Education represented a vehicle for combating racist beliefs as well as a way to improve black people’s material conditions. Increased educational opportunities for blacks, and improved education about race for whites, he argued, represented an important step toward reducing racial prejudice, ending segregation, improving black economic development, and ultimately solving the puzzle of race in America.

The American Dilemma and Economics

In American Dilemma, Myrdal rightly described the economic situation and prospects of black Americans at the close of the Second World War as dark. His work highlighted four barriers to black employment prevalent at the time, namely: (1) exclusion of blacks from certain industries; (2) limited mobility or segregation within industries in which they were accepted; (3) relegation to unskilled or undesirable occupations; and (4) geographical segregation, which resulted in little to no black labor in the small cities of the North and a surplus in large northern cities. Myrdal identified race prejudice as a chief explanation of these barriers, citing three ways in which prejudice operated in the economic sphere: (1) the tendency for even well meaning whites with egalitarian values to resist competition from blacks in their own industries or unions; (2) objections by white customers opposed to being served by blacks in nonmenial positions; and (3) the belief among many white employers that blacks were simply inferior for most kinds of work.

Myrdal described the conditions of economic discrimination against blacks as self-perpetuating, arguing, “the very fact that there is economic discrimination constitutes an added motive for every individual white group to maintain such discriminatory practices” (Myrdal 1944, p. 381). His argument hinged on what he referred to as two mutually reinforcing variables, “white prejudice” and blacks’ “low plane of living,” which he believed to interact in a “vicious cycle,” a situation in which a negative factor is both cause and effect of one or more other negative factors. As he described the cycle, “on the one hand, the negroes’ plane of living is kept down by discrimination from the side of the whites while, on the other hand, the white’s reason for discrimination is partly dependant on the negroes’ plane of living” (Myrdal 1944, p. 1066). In other words, blacks’ opportunities to transcend their relatively low standard of living were limited or cut off by white discrimination, while at the same time the low standard of living imposed on black Americans led to a host of negative outcomes such as poverty, low levels of education, and health problems, which whites pointed to as justification for continued discrimination.

This cycle is further explained through Myrdal’s use of the theory of cumulative causation. According to Myrdal, each of the attributes described above (poverty, education, health, and white prejudice against blacks), along with a host of others, is itself in a relationship of cumulative causation with all of the other attributes. For example, if an individual is denied access to education necessary to attain employment, he or she will be unable to find work in a skilled field. With only the least skilled and lowest-paid jobs available, he or she will be forced into what may be physically demanding work for little pay. The resulting physical and mental stress and poverty is likely to lead to high levels of anxiety, a poor diet, and inadequate health care, all of which can be devastating for his or her health. Frequent illness may result in an inability to hold down even the most menial of jobs, which in turn only worsens the poverty of the individual. A person in such a state may appear to be incapable of benefiting from an education, and thus educational opportunity will continue to be denied.

In Myrdal’s assessment, given the interconnected relationship among these attributes and between blacks’ standard of living and white prejudice and discrimination against blacks, the welfare of individual black people and of blacks in the United States was at best in a state of unstable equilibrium. The slightest change—an increase in white prejudice, a decrease in the availability of educational opportunities, loss of employment opportunities, or the onset of an illness—could send all of these attributes spiraling downward in a vicious cycle. Despite the tendency for changes in any one of these attributes to result in a vicious cycle, Myrdal suggested that the unstable equilibrium that characterized blacks’ lives, though mostly negative, offered hope for reducing white prejudice and raising black Americans’ plane of living. For if any of the attributes of a black person’s life were to improve, the other attributes would be expected to improve as well, and white prejudice would more than likely decrease as its justification vanished.

To this end, Myrdal proposed a campaign aimed at educating whites about their own prejudices and at attacking prejudice and discrimination everywhere they were found. In his words, “the objective of an educational campaign is to minimize prejudice—or, at least, to bring the conflict between prejudice and ideals out into the open and to force the white citizen to take his choice” (Myrdal 1944, pp. 385–386). Myrdal felt that given the choice, most whites, especially in the North, would side with their egalitarian ideals and that “the breakdown of discrimination in one part of the labor market [would facilitate] a similar change in all other parts of it,” or in other words, “the vicious cycle [could] be reversed” (p. 385).

The American Dilemma and Education

Myrdal’s study highlighted the extreme educational disadvantages of African Americans in 1944. Concentrating on the South, where the overwhelming majority of blacks lived, he outlined the systematic efforts of whites to limit black educational opportunities. Black schools were underfunded, black efforts at educational empowerment were thwarted, and black access to educational opportunity was denied as part of a larger strategy to prevent blacks from challenging white dominance. Myrdal’s An American Dilemma placed much of the responsibility for solving the problems of blacks on the system of education. He argued that schools are the great levelers in American democracy, providing equal opportunity for all regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, region, or class origins. On the level playing field of fair, open competition, merit would determine who won society’s choicest prizes—prestigious jobs, high salaries, fine homes, the good life. As evidenced by the persistent social and economic inequality that continues to dog blacks, Myrdal’s ideal notion fails the test of reality even today.

Despite his overly optimistic vision, Myrdal’s examination of black educational trends and problems seemed, for the most part, to predict accurately the years following publication of his study. However, the assimilationist political thrust of the study also limited its predictive power in important respects. Myrdal accurately foresaw the formal dissolution of the dual school system in the South. He also predicted the virulent racist reactions of lower-class whites to increased black educational access, as white racial privilege was threatened by the dissolution of segregation. On these points, Myrdal’s analysis was particularly insightful and accurate. However, his assimilationist approach to solving America’s race problem has not proven sufficient to address the factors that perpetuate racial inequities in education (e.g., residential segregation, unequal funding, inequity in quality of schooling).

In the chapter titled “The Negro Community as a Pathological Form of the American Community,” Myrdal argued that the African American community and its culture are essentially “distorted developments” or “pathological conditions” of the general American community and culture. Under this reasoning, the assimilation of white culture is the “final solution” to overcome America’s race problem. Education would serve to change African American culture fundamentally (i.e., remove its pathological elements) and eventually bring blacks into the larger American community: “The trend toward a rising educational level of the Negro population is of tremendous importance for the power relations discussed in this Part of our inquiry. Education means an assimilation of white American culture. It decreases the dissimilarity of the Negroes from other Americans” (Myrdal 1944, p. 879). This analysis suggested that blacks and whites must go to school together in order for blacks to assimilate into the larger American culture. Although Myrdal’s assimilationist stance saw black institutions and culture slowly disappearing or merging with those of white America, today black education in fact remains a separate and problematic issue. This is primarily due to the intractability of American racial beliefs and to structured racial disadvantage that reinforces the social, economic, and political underdevelopment of the black community.

In his final analysis of the “American Dilemma” (chap. 45), Myrdal envisioned a gradual erosion of the American caste system. While this held true with regard to formal practices and laws, the emergence of a white backlash in the late 1960s and early 1970s, coupled with the persistence of American racial beliefs, betrayed Myrdal’s optimistic assimilationist view. Today, the American Dilemma is manifested in the continued failure of this society to deliver on its promise of equal opportunity. Despite educational gains made by African Americans since the publication of An American Dilemma, disproportionate black economic deprivation persists, as does de facto racial segregation and negative, stereotypic racial beliefs about black people (Brown et al. 2003; Farley and Allen 1989; Feagin 2006; Jaynes and Williams 1989; Kirschenman and Neckerman 1991; Massey and Denton 1993; Schumann et al. 1985). African Americans are disadvantaged in the quantity and quality of education made available to them over their lifespan. At the same time, their hopes for progress in a society that places a premium on educational attainment are thwarted, resulting in the continued subordination of black people in American society (Winfield and Woodard 1994).

As a primarily moral argument for addressing racism, it is on these grounds that Myrdal’s work is often criticized. The sociologist Oliver Cox (1901–1974) described Myrdal’s American Dilemma as a “mystical approach to the study of race relations,” citing his repeated references to a common set of American values or the “American creed” (Cox 1959, p. 509). He argued that such an approach to the dilemma of racism in the United States fails to take into account the material interests that sustain racism and “may have the effect of a powerful piece of propaganda in favor of the status quo” (p. 538). Cox put forward that racism was in fact a system designed by the ruling political class to maintain control over the proletariat, of whatever color, by distracting them from the exploitation brought on by upper-class whites and discouraging class unity across color lines.

Describing Myrdal’s stance on the solution to the American dilemma, Cox referred to the agenda of reformism, which “never goes so far as to envisage real involvement of the exploitative system with racial antagonism. Its extreme aspiration does not go beyond the attainment of freedom for certain black men to participate in the exploitation of the commonality regardless of the color of the latter” (Cox 1959, p. 535). Myrdal’s American Dilemma then, as Cox saw it, was at best a useful source of data with no consistent theory of race relations or solution to the problem of racial discrimination. At worst, Myrdal’s treatise represented a propaganda piece designed to reinforce class exploitation by framing racism as simply a moral problem.

Myrdal was correct in pointing to an American dilemma; however, he misconstrued this as a moral dilemma. Rather, the dilemma with which America wrestles—and has wrestled for centuries—is how best “to reconcile the practical morality of American capitalism with the ideal morality of the American Creed” (Ellison 1973, p. 83). That is, how can a system that is inherently exploitative be accommodated within the rhetoric of equality? This is a dilemma that goes beyond the black/white issues of Myrdal’s time. Recently this dilemma includes how the American educational system has dealt with other nonwhite groups (Stanton-Salazar 2001). Although now far more diverse, the country’s racial climate remains in many ways unchanged from the years of Myrdal’s research, giving a new urgency to the questions that many felt had been answered by the immense undertaking of An American Dilemma and the subsequent period of social change. The challenge before the country now, as was the case in 1944, is “Will America commit to change and to a new, more democratic future or will the country continue to cling to its heritage of racial exploitation and oppression?” (Feagin 2006).


  1. Allen, Walter R., and Joseph O. Jewell. 1995. African American Education Since An American Dilemma: An American Dilemma Revisited. Daedalus 124 (1): 77–100.
  2. Brown, Michael, et al. 2003. Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. Cox, Oliver C. [1948] 1959. Caste, Class, & Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  4. Ellison, Ralph. 1973. An American Dilemma: A Review. In The Death of White Sociology, ed. Joyce A. Ladner, 81–95. New York: Vintage.
  5. Farley, Reynolds, and Walter R. Allen. 1989. The Color Line and the Quality of Life in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.
  7. Jaynes, Gerald D., and Robin M. Williams Jr. 1989. A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  8. Kirschenman, Joleen, and Kathryn M. Neckerman. 1991. “We’d Love to Hire Them But…”: The Meaning of Race for Employers. In The Urban Underclass, eds. Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson, 203–234. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
  9. Marable, Manning. 2002. Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life. New York: Basic Books.
  10. Massey, Douglas, and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  11. Myrdal, Gunnar. 1944. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. 2 vols. New York: Harper.
  12. Schumann, Howard, Charlotte Steeh, and Lawrence Bobo. Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  13. Stanton-Salazar, Ricardo. 2001. Manufacturing Hope and Despair: The School and Kin Support Networks of U.S.Mexican Youth. New York: Teachers College Press.
  14. Winfield, Linda F., and Michael D. Woodard. 1994. Assessment, Equity, and Diversity in Reforming America’s Schools. Educational Policy 8 (1): 3–27.

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