The Swedish Scientist who Examined America’s “Negro Problem”
The treatment of the Negro is America’s greatest and most conspicuous scandal. It is tremendously publicized, and democratic America will continue to publicize it itself.
Born in 1898 in central Sweden, Myrdal grew up in Skattungbyn, Sweden. As a young adult, he attended the University of Stockholm at age 21. In 1923, he earned a law degree and later a Ph.D. in economics. He would marry Alva Myrdal — a Swedish sociologist, diplomat, and politician. In other words, his intellectual partner.
Gunnar Myrdal: Examining the “Negro Problem”
It took a nervy Swedish economist to put down on paper what no white American had ever done — to document, analyze, and excoriate the nation’s continuing mistreatment and evident hatred of the Negro.
Richard Kluger, Simple Justice (1975)
Throughout his career, Myrdal would build his reputation. His reputation would earn him a two-year, $250,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation to study African-Americans’ status in the United States. Myrdal would joke later he was chosen to play the innocent dumb Swede. Fascinated with America’s democratic institutions, Myrdal would accept the grant to study the “Negro Problem.” And in 1938, Myrdal and his wife set sailed to New York, unaware of the monumental task before them.
Travels in America: The American South
The Negro problem is an integral part of, or a special phase of, the whole complex of problems in the larger civilization. It cannot be treated in isolation.
Introduction to An American Dilemma by Gunnar Myrdal
In 1938, Myrdal, feeling it was necessary, traveled through most of the Southern states. He talked with different white and black leaders in different areas and visited universities, churches, factories, and plantations. And he spoke with people from different occupations: police officers, teachers, preachers, politicians, journalists, etc. Often times, Myrdal would simply introduce himself as a Swedish educator traveling throughout the United States.
Described as a brilliant interviewer, Myrdal managed to get the true beliefs of southern Americans. When conversing with a foreigner, Americans tend to stress the importance of American ideals, more so than with ordinary Americans.
With any ordinary American interviewer, southern Americans would’ve been hesitant to reveal their prejudices. But Myrdal, with his foreign Swedish accent, would often feign ignorance — saying he didn’t know anything about black people and would like to know more. Many times, southerners would be more than happy to give a full account of their prejudices.
As such, Gunnar expressed his horror of the evil and problems of what he saw. He saw how seriously both black and white Americans took the American creed, yet these ideals weren’t lived up to in the Jim Crow south. Needing assistance, Myrdal invited the black intellectual, Californian Ralph Bunche for a deep trip through the American South.
A Californian & A Swede: The American South
In 1939, Myrdal and Bunche took a trip across the American South. Outgoing, frank, and direct, Bunche’s manners appealed to the Swedish intellectual. Working together, the men grew close, researching the Jim Crow South.
Bunche interviewed black politicians, community leaders, sharecroppers, workers, and prisoners — giving Myrdal a better picture of southern life. Though Myrdal and Bunche were often separated due to Jim Crow laws, they would meet at night and share their notes on their interviews in the black and white communities. And often, Myrdal would violate the segregation laws, raising Bunche’s fears of getting lynched!
One close call came in Georgia. Myrdal met Mrs. Andrews, the editor’s wife of Georgia Women’s World and a white supremacist. She would often make claims about the evils of black men and how they always wanted to sleep with white women.
After hearing all this angry tirade, Myrdal asked if Mrs. Andrews was aware of the psychological theories explaining what we hated the most is what we actually desired the most. Realizing Myrdal suggested Mrs. Andrews actually wanted black men, she threw him out of the house and called the police!
Myrdal’s Masterpiece: An American Dilemma
The so-called Negro’s problem is a white man’s problem.
In 1941, Myrdal began to write his report on the “Negro problem.” Titled An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, it was published in 1944 and was nearly 1,500 pages long. Myrdal realized there was an inherent conflict between American ideals. Myrdal argued the American creed’s beauty was the insistence of equal opportunities.
But at the same time, he recognized race and prejudice was a function in the creed. If everybody had equal opportunities and rights, then why haven’t African-Americans and poor people have risen in society? The American creed is used as a weapon against African-Americans and poor people.
Myrdal concluded that whites, as a whole, were responsible for the disadvantageous situation blacks were in. African-Americans couldn’t rise in society due to racism. And the poor conditions for African-Americans became the targets for white racism, creating a vicious cycle.
To solve this problem, Myrdal believed in reforming the education system. By increasing education opportunities for blacks and improving racial awareness among whites, Myrdal argued that both communities could take one step closer to fixing America’s race problem. He described his theory of “cumulative causation.” Five attributes, poverty, education, health, and white prejudice all linked up to one another — causing African-Americans’ poor plights.
An American Dilemma’s Legacy & Impact
Perhaps not since Byrce and de Tocqueville has the U.S. had such an analytical probing by a sharp-eyed foreigner. — Times Magazine
When An American Dilemma was published, the book became widely influential in American society. Black and white commentators in public policy and academic circles praised the book. And most African Americans also held positive views. But, not surprisingly, the book was not reviewed widely in the South.
Due to the book’s length, it was condensed and distributed to colleges, schools, armed services, government agencies, and civil rights groups. And every work on blacks was seen as a supplement to Myrdal’s work. After WWII, there was also an increase in the teaching of social sciences. Thus, Myrdal’s work influenced many future racial reformers in the 1960s.
The book was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, ending racial segregation in public schools in 1954. President Harry S. Truman, having read Myrdal’s book, began to wage the civil rights battle. In December 1946, Truman became the first president to appoint a national committee, the Committee on Civil Rights, to study black-white relations. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. also praised the book’s framing of race as a moral issue.
The book’s influence laid the groundwork for future policies for racial integration and affirmative action, leading to the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 & 1968 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. America has come a long way from its racist history, and many may argue, it still has a long way to go. But the United States must always remember when a Swedish intellectual helped paved the road for racial change.