An American Dilemma

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An American Dilemma
First edition published by Harper & Brothers
AuthorGunnar Myrdal
CountryUnited States
Published1944 (1944)

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 Carnegie Corporation of New York. 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 blacks 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 blacks, and then pointed to blacks' 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 blacks, which would then disprove whites' preconceived notions. Myrdal called this process the "principle of cumulation".

In Black-White Relations: The American Dilemma, economist 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 individualism, civil liberties, and equality of opportunity.[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 endows all people—whites, blacks, rich, poor, male, female, and immigrants alike—with a common cause and allows them to co-exist as one nation.[1]

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]