I started thinking about this post after I saw a PBS Special about Gunner Myrdal entitled “American Denial”. Myrdal was a famous Swedish sociologist that in the 1940s was asked by the Carnegie Foundation to study the “negro problem” in the U.S. He had a long and deep admiration of the United States and particularly the American creeds of equal chance, equal opportunity and equal justice. He spent several years investigating before he published his foundational report. Here is a little from Wiki about the man and his work:
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.”
According to Myrdal, the American dilemma of his time (1944) 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…
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. 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.
Myrdal, like Alex De Tocqueville a hundred years before, was a person looking from the outside into the American psyche. He was a person who asked questions that other people weren’t asking. In the 1940 when he spent quite a bit of time in the South he was utterly dejected by what he found to the point of a deep depression. When he saw the extreme racism of Jim Crow he could not reconcile that and the American Creed that he loved so much. He concluded that the reconciliation could only be accomplished by the habit of denial. We simply deny that there is a problem. We ignore it.
Is that, even to a small degree, what we do today? It is finally becoming more and more obvious that equal justice just doesn’t exist in our current system. When 10% of the population account for almost half those incarcerated something needs to be looked at. I hope we eventually recognize that fact. Is the “Negro problem”, and “poor problem” and the “Homeless problem” actually a “white man’s problem” once again. I am not necessarily saying that it is but we need to recognize that it is a possibility or at least a major contributor.