An American Dilemma

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The term Negro Problem redirects here; for the musical group see The Negro Problem (band).

An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy is a 1944 study of race relations authored by Swedish Nobel-laureate economist Gunnar Myrdal and funded by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The foundation chose Myrdal because it thought that as a non-American, he could offer a more unbiased opinion. Myrdal's volume, at nearly 1,500 pages, painstakingly detailed what he saw as obstacles to full participation in American society that American Negroes faced as of the 1940s. Ralph Bunche served as Gunnar Myrdal's main researcher and writer at the start of the project in the Fall of 1938.[1]

It sold over 100,000 copies and went through 25 printings before going into its second edition in 1965. It was enormously influential in how racial issues were viewed in the United States, and it was cited in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case "in general." The book was generally positive in its outlook on the future of race relations in America, taking the view that democracy would triumph over racism. In many ways it laid the groundwork for future policies of racial integration and affirmative action.[1]


Myrdal believed he saw a vicious cycle in which whites oppressed negroes, and then pointed to negroes' poor performance as reason for the oppression. The way out of this cycle, he argued, was to either cure whites of the prejudice he believed existed, or to improve the circumstances of negroes, which would then disprove whites' preconceived notions. Myrdal called this process the “principle of cumulation."

In Black-White Relations: The American Dilemma, Junfu Zhang gives this description of Myrdal's work:

According to Myrdal, the American dilemma of his time referred to the co-existence of the American liberal ideals and the miserable situation of blacks. On the one hand, enshrined in the American creed is the belief that people are created equal and have human rights; on the other hand, blacks, as one tenth of the population, were treated as an inferior race and were denied numerous civil and political rights. Myrdal's encyclopedic study covers every aspect of black-white relations in the United States up to his time. He frankly concluded that the "Negro problem" is a "white man's problem." That is, whites as a collective were responsible for the disadvantageous situation in which blacks were trapped.[2]

Myrdal, writing before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, alleged that northern whites were generally ignorant of the situation facing negro citizens, and noted that "to get publicity is of the highest strategic importance to the Negro people." This proved, given the pivotal role played by the press in the movement, to be strikingly prescient.[1]

American Creed[edit]

At the center of Myrdal's work in An American Dilemma was his postulate that political and social interaction in the United States is shaped by an "American Creed." This creed emphasizes the ideals of liberty, equality, justice, and fair treatment of all people.[1][3] Myrdal claims that it is the "American Creed" that keeps the diverse melting pot of the United States together. It is the common belief in this creed that enables all people—whites, negroes, rich, poor, male, female, and immigrants alike—with a common cause and allows for them to co-exist as one nation.[1]


There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of white Americans desire that there be as few Negroes as possible in America. If the Negroes could be eliminated from America or greatly decreased in numbers, this would meet the whites' approval-provided that it could be accomplished by means which are also approved. Correspondingly, an increase of the proportion of Negroes in the American population is commonly looked upon as undesirable.

White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals. This, in its turn, gives support to white prejudice. White prejudice and Negro standards thus mutually 'cause' each other.

On page 167 of the book, under the sub-heading 'Ends and Means of Population Policy,' appears the following analysis (emphasis in original):

[T]here is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of white Americans desire that there be as few Negroes as possible in America. If the Negroes could be eliminated from America or greatly decreased in numbers, this would meet the whites' approval -- provided that it could be accomplished by means which are also approved. Correspondingly, an increase of the proportion of Negroes in the American population is commonly looked upon as undesirable. On page 168, Myrdal further remarks that these ideas are 'not necessarily hostile' in all situations. He comments that the very same opinion...

... is shared even by enlightened white Americans who do not hold the common belief that Negroes are inferior as a race. Usually it is pointed out that Negroes fare better and meet less prejudice when they are few in number. Toward the bottom of the same page (168), the following appears: we shall presently see, all white Americans agree that, if the Negro is to be eliminated, he must be eliminated slowly so as not to hurt any living individual Negroes. Therefore, the dominant American valuation is that 'the Negro should be eliminated from the American scene, but slowly.' Regarding the difficulties posed by the 'problem' of Negro population, Myrdal states on page 170 that....

In our further discussion of the means in Negro population policy we ought start out from the desire of the politically dominant white population to get rid of the Negroes. This is a goal difficult to reach by approved means, and the desire has never been translated into action directly, and probably never will be. All the most obvious means go strongly against the American Creed. The Negroes cannot be killed off. Compulsory deportation would infringe upon personal liberty in such a radical fashion that it is excluded. Voluntary exportation of Negroes could not be carried on extensively because of unwillingness on the part of recipient nations as well as on the part of the American Negroes themselves, who usually do not want to leave the country but prefer to stay and fight it out here. Neither is it possible to effectuate the goal by keeping up the Negro death rate. A high death rate is an unhumanitarian and undemocratic way to restrict the Negro population and, in addition, expensive to society and dangerous to the white population. The only possible way of decreasing Negro population is by means of controlling 'fertility.' But as we shall find, even birth control -- for Negroes as well as for whites -- will, in practice, have to be considered primarily as a means to other ends than that of decreasing the Negro population. After a lengthy discussion of the reasons for promoting birth control among people of African descent (and to a lesser extent among poor people generally), Myrdal then endorses, on page 178 of the book, 'extreme' measures in this direction:

If caste with all its consequences were to disappear, there would, from these viewpoints, be no more need for birth control among Negroes than among whites. But the general reasons for family limitation would remain, and they would have a strength depending upon the extent to which society was reformed to become a more favorable environment for families with children. Until these reforms are carried out, and as long as the burden of caste is laid upon American Negroes, even an extreme birth control program is warranted by reasons of individual and social welfare.

Finally, Myrdal acknowledges the opposition to such a program that is virtually certain to arise from the black community, and he infers that a certain amount of deception will be needed -- primarily the use of 'negro doctors and nurses' to conceal the real goals of white society. Note especially the change in language by which a serious attempt to 'get rid of the Negroes' suddenly is transformed into a campaign of birth planning meant to 'benefit' them (page 180):

The activity of the birth control movement's workers, the Southern whites, and the Negro leaders -- all with the same aim of spreading birth control among Negroes -- promises a great development of the movement in the future.....

A ... serious difficulty is that of educating Southern Negroes to the advantages of birth control. Negroes, on the whole, have all the prejudices against it that other poor, ignorant, superstitious people have. More serious is the fact that even when they do accept it, they are not very efficient in obeying instructions and sometimes they come to feel that it is a fake. An intensive educational campaign is needed, giving special recognition to the prejudices and ignorance of the people whom the campaign is to benefit. The use of Negro doctors and nurses is essential.

The chapter on 'population' begins by advising that, until about the 1930s, the growth of the black population lagged far behind the increase in white population. Not only fertility, but immigration as well, tended to support a phenomenal rise in the numbers of white U.S. residents between the end of the 18th century and the early 20th. However, birth rates among both black and white people had fallen in the years prior to Myrdal's research, to the point that black fertility had for the first time become measurably higher than white. This information on demographic trends begins on the first page of the population chapter, page 157 (citations omitted):

There were about 17 times as many Negroes in the United States in 1940 as there were in 1790, when the first census was taken, but in the same period the white population increased 37 times... Negroes were 19.3 per cent of the American population in 1790, but only 9.8 per cent in 1940.... [The relative change in proportion] has been governed by the national increase of the two population stocks, by expansion of the territorial limits of the United States and by immigration. At page 160 (re census figures):

Despite the errors in the data, it is possible to derive the following tentative conclusions: (1) that Negroes, like whites, are not reproducing themselves so rapidly as they used to, (2) that probably their rate is now higher than that of the whites, and (3) that this differential is a new phenomenon, at least in so far as it is significant. If such a differential continues into the future and if it is not fully compensated for by immigration of whites, the proportion of Negroes in the American population may be expected to rise, though slowly. Half way down the next page (page 161), Myrdal observes:

...Negroes are no longer reproducing themselves at a lower rate than whites. In fact, the figures suggest that they are reproducing themselves more -- thus reversing the position they held in 1930 and before. As to future trends, the author includes a veiled hint about the potential for intervention on page 163:

It must be remembered, however, that future change in fertility and mortality will change the entire pattern. At page 165, Myrdal points out the inconsistencies in various popular beliefs about the black population:

Popular theories on the growth of the Negro population in America have been diverse. At times it has been claimed that Negroes 'breed like rabbits,' and that they will ultimately crowd out the whites if they are not deported or their procreation restricted. At other times it has been pronounced that they are a 'dying race,' bound to lose out in the 'struggle for survival.' Myrdal writes that it is common among 'liberal' white Americans to rationalize the depopulation of persons of African descent on the grounds that there will be less prejudice as the size of the black population diminishes But this is clearly not the perception of the black community. Writes Myrdal (at the bottom of page 168), 'I have never met a Negro who drew the conclusion from this that a decrease of the American Negro population would be advantageous. Indeed, says the very same paragraph (on page 169): 'almost every Negro, who is brought to think about the problem, wants the Negro population to be as large as possible.'

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Roberts, Gene and Hank Klibanoff (2006). The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-40381-7. 
  2. ^ Zhang, Junfu (February 2000). "Black-White Relations: The American Dilemma". Perspectives (Overseas Young Chinese Forum) 1 (4).  (available online)
  3. ^ Myrdal, Gunnar (1944). An American dilemma: The negro problem and modern democracy. New York: Harper & Bros.

Further reading[edit]