Jared Taylor, American Renaissance, April 1996
An American Dilemma, written by the Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal, is unquestionably the most influential book ever written about race relations in America. Published in 1944, this 1,400-page treatment of “the Negro problem” went through 25 printings — an astonishing record for a heavily academic work — before it went into a second, “twentieth anniversary” edition in 1962. It influenced presidential commissions and Supreme Court decisions, and established rules for public discussion about race that endure to this day. More than any other book, it laid the groundwork for integration, affirmative action, and multi-racialism, and destroyed the legitimacy of white racial consciousness.
Although the title is as famous as ever, virtually no one now reads An American Dilemma. Partly this is because its exhaustive statistics are out of date, and the legal segregation it set out to eradicate has been gone for 30 years. Another reason is that by today’s standards the book is grossly “insensitive,” not only to Southern whites whom Myrdal obviously despised, but even to blacks whose cause he championed.
Yet another reason no one reads this book may be that it is a gold mine for anyone interested in the ideas that have paved the way for an increasingly Third-World America. Every anti-white cliché is here, as is every excuse for black failure. What is more, Myrdal pronounces them in the starkest, most unsubtle terms. Liberal race policies had not yet been tried. Myrdal had not witnessed their failure and therefore did not temper his language as liberals do today. The result is the clearest possible statement of the calamitous ideas that have shaped the last 40 years.
For Myrdal, “the Negro problem” has only one cause. Today he would have called it “racism” or “bigotry” but those words were not yet part of the liberal vocabulary. He writes instead of “prejudice” and “discrimination,” and this is perhaps his key passage:
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.
In other words, whites degrade blacks and then point to their degradation as justification for degrading them. Myrdal saw several ways out of this vicious cycle. If whites could be cured of prejudice, they would not oppress blacks so much, blacks would improve themselves, and their example would further cure whites of prejudice. Alternatively, the government could take measures to improve the circumstances of blacks, which would reduce white prejudice, which would permit blacks to improve themselves still further. Myrdal devotes an entire appendix to this “principle of cumulation,” whereby even the smallest improvement will constantly magnify itself.
For this to work, though, blacks must be, aside from their oppression, no different from whites. Although anthropologists had been promoting this egalitarian view since the 1930s, Myrdal was the first prominent economist to write that discrimination rather than low intelligence caused black poverty. Myrdal knew this claim was central to his argument and repeated it throughout the book.
“Social research,” he says, is “constantly disproving inherent differences and explaining apparent ones in cultural and social terms.” He cites the assertions of Franz Boas and his disciples (but offers no data) to discredit conventional views about racial differences in intelligence and temperament: “[T]he popular race dogma is being victoriously pursued into every corner and effectively exposed as fallacious or at least unsubstantiated.” As a result, “the undermining of the basis of certitude for popular beliefs has been accomplished.” Myrdal was sure that science was on his side, and voices a complaint that is, ironically, echoed in the pages of AR — that there is a “wide gap between scientific thought and popular belief.”
The difficulty, he says, is that unlike biological differences, the cultural explanation is just too much for rubes: “It requires difficult and complicated thinking about a multitude of mutually dependent variables, thinking which does not easily break into the lazy formalism of unintellectual people.” We can be optimistic, though, because “white prejudice can change . . . as a result of an increased general knowledge about biology, eradicating some of the false beliefs among whites concerning Negro racial inferiority.”
Already in 1944, Myrdal sensed the demise of theories about racial differences: “Most of them never reach the printing press or the microphone any more, as they are no longer intellectually respectable. The educated classes of whites are gradually coming to regard those who believe in the Negro’s biological inferiority as narrow-minded and backward.”
The better class of whites now understood that “the Negro problem in America represents a moral lag in the development of the nation,” and this was, in fact, the American dilemma. Blacks were in every respect the equals of whites, yet were treated as inferiors. This injustice was particularly jarring in the United States because it violated what Myrdal calls “the American creed” of equality.
Why did Americans persist in violating the creed? In the South, Myrdal discovered elaborate mechanisms of racial separation that he called the “caste system.” He notes that although caste rules govern virtually all contact between blacks and whites they serve one central function: to keep blacks from marrying or having sex with whites. In both the North and the South Myrdal found a universal revulsion among whites for miscegenation and the “amalgamation of the races” that this would bring. In virtually all the states, this revulsion was reflected in laws that forbade interracial marriage.
Myrdal scoffs at this. He even “jestingly argues” that amalgamation “might create a race of unsurpassed excellence: A people with just a little sunburn without extra trouble and even through the winter; with some curl in the hair without the cost of a permanent wave; with, perhaps, a little more emotional warmth in their souls; and a little more religion, music, laughter, and carefreeness in their lives.”
Myrdal never even accepted white opposition to amalgamation as genuine. With no data to support his view, he insisted that opposition was nothing more than a pretext for keeping blacks out of economic competition. He went on to call it “an irrational escape on the part of the whites from voicing an open demand for difference in social status between the two groups for its own sake.” Whites, he said, have a purely tyrannical desire for supremacy, but claim that they are trying to prevent miscegenation.
What, then, underlies the desire for supremacy? Myrdal claimed to understand white Americans better than they understood themselves: “Without any doubt there is also in the white man’s concept of the Negro ‘race’ an irrational element which cannot be grasped in terms of either biological or cultural differences . . . In this magical sphere of the white man’s mind, the Negro is inferior, totally independent of rational proofs or disproofs. And he is inferior in a deep and mystical sense.”
The Vicious South
This form of mysticism was particularly prevalent in the South; some of Myrdal’s comments about Southerners beggar the imagination:
[It would be correct to say that] the white South is virtually obsessed by the Negro problem, that the South has allowed the Negro problem to rule its politics and its business, fetter its intelligence and human liberties, and hamper its progress in all directions . . .
The issue of ‘white supremacy vs. Negro domination,’ as it is called in the South, has for more than a hundred years stifled freedom of thought and speech and affected all other civic rights and liberties of both Negroes and whites in the South. It has retarded its economic, social and cultural advance. On this point there is virtual agreement among all competent observers.
White Southerners are prepared to abstain from many liberties and to sacrifice many advantages for the purpose of withholding them from the Negroes.
These charges — that Southerners are obsessed with blacks, that obsession retards progress, that whites deny themselves liberties in order to withhold them from blacks — are tossed off without elaboration or substantiation.
Although Myrdal conceded that by the time he studied race relations lynchings were unusual and widely condemned, he finds great significance in them:
The South has an obsession with sex which helps to make this region quite irrational in dealing with Negroes generally . . . The sadistic elements in most lynchings also point to a close relation between lynching and thwarted sexual urges.
Oddly, he thought that Southern Christianity was partly to blame for lynching:
[Another factor is] the prevalence of a narrow-minded and intolerant, ‘fundamentalist’ type of Protestant evangelical religion. Occasional violently emotional revival services, and regular appeals in ordinary preaching to fear and passion rather than to calm reasoning, on the one hand, and denunciations of modern thought, scientific progress, and all kinds of nonconformism, on the other hand, help to create a state of mind which makes a lynching less extraordinary.
Of course, lynching was part of the “amazing disrespect for law and order which even today characterizes the Southern states in America and constitutes such a large part of the Negro problem.” Thanks to this lawlessness, “a white man can steal from or maltreat a Negro in almost any way without fear of reprisal . . .” This is part of a long tradition: “[A] main way to get and remain rich in the South has been to exploit the Negroes and other weaker people, rather than to work diligently, make oneself indispensable and have brilliant ideas.” Exploiting blacks is apparently known as “mattressing the niggers.”
Myrdal writes that although Southerners claim to understand blacks, this is “one of the most pathetic stereotypes in the South.” On the contrary, the Southern white is willfully ignorant: “The ignorance about the Negro is not, it must be stressed, just a random lack of interest and knowledge. It is a tense and highstrung restriction and distortion of knowledge, and it indicates much deeper dislocations within the minds of Southern whites.”
Mental dislocations characterize Southern politics: “[F]ear of the Negro shadows every political discussion and prevents the whites from doing anything to improve themselves.” This, says Myrdal, results in “an amazing avoidance of issues in Southern politics.” Debate is one-sided: “Even at present the South does not have a full spectrum of political opinions . . . There are relatively few liberals in the South and practically no radicals.” He describes Southerners as the only true reactionaries in the developed world; their goal is “to accept the static state as ideal and to denounce progress.”
What little hope there may be is found in Southern liberalism, which he finds “beautiful and dignified.” As for its proponents, “they are the intellectuals of the region and are responsible for a large part of the entire high-grade literary, journalistic and scientific output of the region . . . They are, indeed, the cultural facade of the South.” This “gives to liberalism in the South a flavor of intellectual superiority . . .”
Victims of Discrimination
As these passages suggest, when An American Dilemma turns to analysis, its subject is whites rather than blacks. This is consistent with Myrdal’s view that “the Negro problem” begins and ends in the minds of whites. Without discrimination, blacks would be perfectly ordinary Americans, so it is only whites who must be dissected and denounced.
The descriptive passages, on the other hand, are largely of the circumstances of blacks, with detailed accounts of agriculture, education, the professions, social life, criminal justice, government employment, black churches, protest movements, and much more. Myrdal finds a great deal among blacks that is unpleasant, even “pathological,” but he always has explanations: slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination.
If blacks riot it is because their just resentments have boiled over. Blacks have been given a place in popular music but “have been greatly hampered in more serious music.” Violent crime is a reaction to Southern lawlessness. Slavery broke up the black family. Discrimination causes poverty — and prostitution, drug addiction, even bad manners and anti-white crime.
What is striking about these arguments is not that Myrdal made them — in the pre-civil rights 1940s they were powerful and persuasive — but that people make them today. This habit of trotting out white wickedness to explain every form of black failure is one of the most persistent and destructive elements of liberal thinking. Myrdal was its most influential progenitor.
On the other hand, it may have been Myrdal’s confidence in his explanations for black deviance that allowed him to write about it with candor that would today be called “racist.”
“[M]any Negroes, particularly in the South, are poor, uneducated, and deficient in health, morals, and manners; and thus not very agreeable as social companions,” he writes. Any given black is “more indolent, less punctual, less careful, and generally less efficient as a functioning member of society.” He notes that blacks are more likely to be repeat criminals, and that “Negro criminals have become more addicted to crime and less corrigible.”
Myrdal finds black thought narrow and sloppy: “Negro thinking in social and political terms is thus exclusively a thinking about the Negro problem . . . Particularly in the lower classes, and in the Southern rural districts, the ideological structure of Negro thinking — even in its own narrow, caste-restricted realm — is loose, chaotic and rambling.”
He also notes the hypocrisy of middle-class blacks who denounce segregation but profit from the monopoly business of serving black customers. He also writes that much as blacks may claim to be proud of their race, they often describe themselves as lighter-skinned — and never darker — than they actually are. He observes that successful black men invariably marry light-skinned women.
Although many authors praise the black church, Myrdal was repelled by black worship services and writes disapprovingly of “rolling in a sawdust pit in [a] state of ecstasy, tambourine playing, reading of the future, healing of the sick, use of images of saints, footwashing, use of drums and jazz music, etc.” “These ‘rousements,’” he goes on to say, “bring most of the congregation into some degree of ‘possession.’” “There is a tendency to emotionalize the collection so as to elicit more money.”
Preachers are worse than congregations: “The chief prerequisite for becoming a minister in most of the denominations to which Negroes belong is traditionally not education, but a ‘call’ which is more often the manifestation of temporary hysteria or opportunistic self-inspiration than of a deep soul-searching.”
Myrdal doesn’t see much use for church at all: “The small upper class of Negroes tends to belong to the Episcopalian, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches, since for them a main function of church membership is to give prestige.” Furthermore, “Negro preachers condemn extra-marital sex relations, but they seldom take any specific steps to stop them because usually so many of their congregation engage in the condemned behavior.”
Even when he is complimenting blacks, Myrdal can adopt a contemptuous tone:
Negroes have acquired the art of enjoying life more than have whites. Because they have no direct background in puritanism, they have taken sex more as it comes, without all the encumbrances and inhibitions . . . The habit of spending a good deal of leisure time out-of-doors, due in part to the over-crowdedness of the Negro home, has contributed to the social pleasantness of Negro life, since being outside involves meeting friends and having no worries about destroying furniture.
Myrdal professes to admire the “wholesome” way blacks entertain themselves while working: “Singing, for example, accompanies all work, even on the chain gang; gambling while working is another example.” Gambling while working?
Myrdal can’t seem to decide whether black illegitimacy is good or bad. He notes that the black rate is eight times higher than the white rate but adds that “the Negro community also has the healthy social custom of attaching no stigma to the illegitimate child . . .” This means that “the Negro lower classes, especially in the rural South, have built up a type of family organization conducive to social health, even though the practices are outside the American tradition.”
On the other hand: “The over-crowdedness of the homes and the consequent lack of privacy prevent the growth of ideals of chastity and are one element in encouraging girls to become prostitutes.” Myrdal sometimes seems as sex-obsessed as he claims Southerners to be. Indeed, he spends several pages in fascinated speculation about the illicit couplings that gave blacks so many white genes.
Today, one of the most striking aspects of An American Dilemma is its touching faith in social science. Myrdal writes with much satisfaction about his “scientific” methods and solutions. Rather more ominous is his infatuation with “social engineering.” The following passage is one of the clearest statements imaginable of the goals and tactics of liberalism:
Many things that for a long period have been predominantly a matter of individual adjustment will become more and more determined by political decision and public regulation . . . [T]he social engineering of the coming epoch will be nothing but the drawing of practical conclusions from the teaching of social science that ‘human nature’ is changeable and that human deficiencies and unhappiness are, in large degree, preventable.
This passage, which could have been written by Karl Marx, is worth rereading for its breathless arrogance. Society will make all sorts of decisions for people that they used to make for themselves. Social engineering will then prevent unhappiness by changing human nature. It was, of course, enlightened liberals like Myrdal who would boss us around for our own good. The first project for Americans was to stamp out their pathological attitudes towards blacks and their false opposition to racial amalgamation.
Myrdal’s arrogance leads to contempt for American institutions, especially if they stand in the way of “social engineering.” He writes of the “nearly fetishistic cult of the Constitution” and goes on to complain that “the 150-year-old Constitution is in many respects impractical and ill-suited for modern conditions and . . . drafters of the document made it technically difficult to change . . .” Once again he sounds like Marx when he writes, “the Constitutional Convention was nearly a plot against the common people.”
Given that he seems to make no attempt to conceal his politics — he even refers to Eleanor Roosevelt as the President’s “gallant lady” — it is baffling to find an appendix in An American Dilemma on how to avoid bias in social science. Mere description, Myrdal writes, is actually bias because it implies that society cannot or should not be changed. His approach — vastly superior — is to analyze rather than describe, and to do so with the clear intent of transforming society. Unlike many who followed him, he was at least honest about his goals, yet he makes the astonishing claim that his analysis was unbiased:
In a particular problem where public opinion in the dominant white group is traditionally as heavily prejudiced in the conservative direction as in the Negro problem, even a radical tendency might fail to reach an unprejudiced judgment . . .
Just as remarkable is another appendix called “A Parallel to the Negro Problem.” He argues that men oppress women just as whites oppress blacks, and predicts massive social transformation. Myrdal concludes that the Soviet Union is perhaps the only country in the world to get sex roles right.
Why, though, was the Myrdal vision of race able not only to sweep everything before it but prepare the ground for all the other “liberation” movements? One reason, undoubtedly, was selective reporting, combined with repeated assertions of moral superiority. But there is another reason that Myrdal himself unwittingly suggests. He notes that even the most conservative whites rarely defend segregation personally, but say that “community feeling” or “tradition” requires it. He says this about the reasons for white solidarity and the evidence for racial differences:
They live a surreptitious life in thoughts and private remarks. There we have had to hunt them . . . When they were thus drawn out into the open they looked shabby and ashamed of themselves. Everybody who has acquired a higher education knows that they are wrong.
He then adds the very interesting observation that the white man “does not have the moral stamina” to codify and defend a system based on explicit racial differences.
Those who would promote white consciousness today face the same obstacles. The Myrdal vision triumphed because there was no thoughtful, moral argument to oppose it. Many conservatives were ashamed of their views and afraid to voice them. Compared to maintaining segregation, the goal of preserving a people and a way of life should, by anyone’s terms, be morally irreproachable. And yet hesitancy, shame, and fear of opprobrium are still the greatest obstacles to the pursuit of legitimate white interests.
It is for this reason that the expression of group interests, which for others is simply a matter of stamina is, for whites, a matter of moral stamina. The Myrdal vision succeeded because it harnessed, in a dangerously deluded way, the moral energy of whites. Only by directing that energy toward their own survival will whites break the shackles that Myrdal and his followers forged for them.
[Editor’s Note: This essay appears in A Rage Against Time: Racial Heresies for the 21st Century, a collection of some of the finest essays and reviews published by American Renaissance. It is available for purchase here.]