An American Dilemma
by Maribel Morey
May 27, 2021
Maribel | My name is Maribel Morey. I am a historian of US philanthropy and the social sciences, and founding executive director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences, a nonprofit centering the work of Global Majority scholars in the social sciences as means both for improving the integrity and rigor of these fields, and for building more inclusive national and international political economies. I have a book coming out in October, called White Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation's An American Dilemma and the Making of a White World Order.
frank | What does the book focus on?
The book, White Philanthropy, is about the making of a monumental study of race in the U.S.: Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944). Authored by Gunnar Myrdal and published in 1944, it is a two-volume study that totals over 1500 pages. An American Dilemma argues that the problem of race, which Myrdal called the “Negro problem,” or rather, the problem of Black Americans’ very existence, was a moral problem in the hearts and minds of white Americans. He said that white Americans felt guilty about the gap between their egalitarian ideals and the way that they discriminated against fellow Black Americans; a group of Americans that, as Myrdal explained in An American Dilemma, white Americans thought to be inferior. So he provided ways in the book for white Americans to address their perceived problem.
Myrdal provided a rank order of discriminations, which he called the “white man's rank order of discriminations.”
He basically says white Americans were more wedded to some forms of white supremacy and anti-Black discrimination and less wedded to others.
To this point, he emphasized that white Americans were less committed to maintaining discrimination and biases against Black people in jobs. By contrast, white Americans were much more committed to maintaining white supremacist laws on intermarriage. “If you start out by addressing jobs, you will ultimately get to a place where you can address intermarriage.”
On the flip side, Myrdal encouraged Black people to accept assimilation into whiteness as a prerequisite for equal treatment, writing in An American Dilemma that “it is to the advantage of American Negroes as individuals and as a group to become assimilated into American culture, to acquire the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans.” In essence, Myrdal in An American Dilemma provided a program of racial assimilation that would bring Black people into white U.S. life at a level and speed that was comfortable to white Americans and that would reinforce white Americans’ sense of cultural superiority and sense as an egalitarian people.
The book was very popular in the U.S., particularly in the 1940s and 1950s. President Truman’s Civil Rights Committee echoed Myrdal’s moralistic arguments and his “white man’s rank order of discriminations.” Most famously, the U.S. The Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education cited An American Dilemma as part of the social science literature encouraging the Court to overrule the Plessy doctrine of “separate but equal” in the realm of public school education.
This is actually when An American Dilemma started receiving much more ire from white southerners. There is a congressional investigation on foundations afterwards, and though nothing comes of it, generally, this is when you start seeing both greater pushback to An American Dilemma in the white South, and more broadly in the U.S., hearing more about "liberal foundations."
Before this moment in time, before the Red Scare of the 1950s, there's no such thing as "liberal foundations." There are just really rich robber-barons with foundations.
How did you become interested in this study?
Before transforming into a historian of US philanthropy and the social sciences, I started off as a law student curious about how law professors talked about An American Dilemma, specifically in Brown V. Board of Education. I wondered why law professors were talking about this case as particularly moralistic, compared to other seminal U.S. Supreme Court cases such as Lochner v. New York (1905). From my perspective, they were equally “valid” legal opinions, structured in their varying logical sequences. That said, law professors’ reading of Brown as a particularly moral (read: not a “strongly reasoned” legal opinion) was shaping my awareness about the politics of knowledge in the courtroom and in the academe.
And specifically to An American Dilemma, it caught my attention that, even Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when she wanted to cite the race/sex analogy to expand jurisprudence under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, cited Myrdal over Simone de Beauvoir, who was her real inspiration. That got me really early on thinking, why would she cite him?
I wanted to understand which ideas were dominant and embraced both privately and publicly among lawyers and law professors and why and how knowledge is produced, and why some are treated more authoritatively than others.
I ended up going to grad school and pursuing this research further. During my time there I realized that An American Dilemma had been financed handsomely by a foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, allowing Myrdal to solicit the help of endless teams of U.S. social scientists over the span of years and to solicit to the collaboration of key state officials across the country.
Before graduate school, I had no idea what foundations were. Being Cuban and growing up in Miami, there were only two versions of political economy that I really understood. One was communism, where the state is the sole provider of public goods. The other was neoliberalism, where profit maximization is the norm. I didn't understand where foundations fit into that. Who were these people in a capitalist society who were not exactly about profit maximization, but were not exactly trying to resolve societal problems to the level of equalizing everyone? They definitely didn't support communism. What was the middle ground? It was philanthropy, basically. In grad school, I started thinking more and more about the funders of An American Dilemma, trying to understand them. Who were they?
Why does Carnegie Corporation fund this? And how does it align with their perception of race relations in the United States?
My book is pushing boundaries by trying to answer this question. Generally, scholars don't look too much at why Carnegie Corporation funded this study. Or they might just say, “It was a very conservative organization, but Myrdal took it in a different direction.” That happens because to some degree, many U.S. scholars have really bought into this idea of Myrdal as a blank slate, who, by virtue of being Swedish, embodied egalitarianism. But, if you were in Sweden, there's no way you would think that Myrdal had a blank slate. In Sweden, there's a much more layered perception of Myrdal and his collaborator, his wife, Alva Reimer Myrdal. They played a central part in the formation of the Swedish welfare state, but they also had very complicated ideas about who belonged in the national body. They were part of eugenics conversations in the twenties and thirties in Europe. So in Sweden, compared to the U.S., there is actually this much more complicated image of the Myrdals and their vision for national political bodies. And as I explain in White Philanthropy, Gunnar Myrdal’s experiences as an economist and national planner in Sweden, and his advocacy of the U.S. during the Second World War, all played parts in his analysis of, and public policy solutions for, the so-called problem of Black Americans.
As far as why Carnegie Corporation was interested in commissioning and financing this project, in the 1920s, the organization was on high alert about the potentially disruptive force of rising Black consciousness across the Atlantic and how that could affect international peace, which these sets of foundation leaders and their advisers presumed required white Anglo-American leadership. With that in mind, Frederick Paul Keppel, the president of Carnegie Corporation at the time, not only continued the organization’s funding of the Tuskegee educational model as a means of controlling Black people on either side of the Atlantic but also started financing cooperative studies on social sciences in order to aid white policymakers in the Anglo-American world to address perceived problems in their governance of white supremacy and Black subordination.
And the first of these studies was in South Africa, in 1932, titled, The Poor White Problem in South Africa: Report of the Carnegie Commission. And the second one, based in London, was An African Survey: A Study of Problems arising in Africa South of the Sahara (1938).
In the mid-1930s, one of the trustees at Carnegie Corporation started questioning the foundation's longstanding practice of funding the Tuskegee Institute’s educational model for Black Americans in the U.S. He said that funding agricultural and industrial education for Black people, which had been the panacea to maintaining white supremacy, long advocated by Andrew Carnegie himself, wasn’t going to work anymore, because the new problems were different. As this trustee, Newton Baker, underscored to his colleagues on the board, the problems he associated with Black Americans were then also urban. They were about crime. They were about city sanitation. That inspired Keppel to pivot towards conducting a national study, inspired by the ongoing African survey based in London, to have a comparable research structure and public policy purpose. Instead of enlisting multiple people to author single chapters of the cooperative study, for example, Keppel wanted a European statesman who would be responsible for synthesizing and bringing his own analytic lens to all the data collected by the team.
The policy goal was to help white policymakers across governments to learn from each other and to synchronize their policies on Black people. An African Study was doing it across Imperial governments in Africa. An American Dilemma would do it across U.S. governments, across the North and the South.
While directing the U.S. study, I show that there was high-level dialogue between the funder and grantee. Keppel and Myrdal corresponded very routinely. Keppel would read drafts of the study and give feedback. Ultimately, the final manuscript of An American Dilemma complemented Keppel’s vision that Myrdal would maintain white Americans as the main audience and provide a means of helping white Americans address the so-called problem of Black Americans and find a new equilibrium in white Anglo-American domination.
For this network of funders, including Keppel, their preferred model of white rule included verbalized sympathy for Black people.
It is easier to discuss interpersonal issues than structural. Did his line of thought come into conflict with Black thought leaders at the time?
Well, W. E. B. Du Bois never publicly criticized An American Dilemma. In fact, he publicly celebrated it, though as his biography David Levering Lewis underscores, Du Bois did personally sympathize with its critics who found the book to be the “opiate of the white liberals.” On the one hand, the study indeed highlights for white readers the humanity of Black people. There is some discursive value to that. Because here is a study written by a white man highly respected by its target audience of white U.S. readers (Myrdal targeted New Dealers and white Northerners). And he indeed suggested, much like Malcolm Hailey in An African Survey, that white people had a responsibility to be less discriminatory, less violent towards Black people.
There is something to that. That is something Ralph Ellison underscores in his own review of An American Dilemma, which he actually left unpublished for two decades. He said, sure this is better than a lot of other studies on Black Americans by white scholars at the time. On the other hand, as Ellison equally highlighted, An American Dilemma did not amplify or underscore the agency of Black people. It is very passive. In the book, Myrdal is asking Black Americans to wait until white people have moral awakenings and want to be less violent and discriminatory towards them – while leaving undisturbed white Americans’ continued domination, both in determining the speed and content of Black Americans’ assimilation into white life, and in continuing their internalized assumption that whiteness is superior and Blackness inferior, and thus, worthy of disappearing. In Myrdal’s definition of equality, there is no room for Blackness. There's no room for me to be Cuban.
It is a definition of equality that calls for your absolute disappearance. How can that be equality?
Other critics beyond Ralph Ellison such as Oliver Cox, Stokely Carmichael, C.L.R. James, would characterize An American Dilemma as a project of the U.S. bourgeoisie, and ask rhetorically: Since when do imperial powers, including the U.S., change their acts when they realize that their democratic ideals come into conflict with their actual behavior towards colonized groups?
To what degree is this an international project?
My method involved me first going into Carnegie Corporation’s archives – I read all their annual reports and all their board minutes. When I realized a certain set of characters, I then looked at their personal correspondence. Then I branched out too to their network of colleagues at the Rockefeller organizations and the Phelps Stokes Fund, and to the archives of their grantees and critics. And you have to waste time — this is a decades-long project. You go into a box, and you have no idea if it is going to be worth it. And in the U.S., we are so programmed into not thinking that things are connected internationally. But we know that the whole idea in philanthropy is to scale — and that's what they were doing too in the early twentieth century. They were funding something here, and they would ask where they could take it next.
When I was reading the meeting archival material at Carnegie Corporation, I got the sense that when they spoke about Black people, they were talking about Black people across national, colonial, and imperial borders. Relatedly, they spoke about seeing commonality between themselves and white colonial and imperial officers, especially those in the British Empire.
That is when I started connecting the dots and realizing just how international this was. One of their main advisors, J. H. Oldham, was a leading figure in international missionary networks based in London. There is published correspondence between Oldham and, former British East African medical officer, Norman Leys on what education was appropriate for Black Africans. Leys said that it didn’t matter what role you think someone's going to have in life, we all have a responsibility to educate someone who might become king one day. More in line with developing ideas about appropriate educational models for colonized groups in the British Empire then being increasingly embraced by the British Colonial Office, Oldman argued that education for various groups in society needed to meet the needs of the community; a community which assumed white supremacy and Black subordination.
From Oldham’s perspective, education would “help” Black people, but more broadly and more importantly for him, also would help the financial and political interests of colonial and imperial governments. Andrew Carnegie, in a 1917 lecture called, “The Negro in America,” also mentioned how this model of education — the Tuskegee educational model — would help colonial imperial powers maintain control over colonized groups.
I kind of want to shift back to this idea of how ideology becomes salient. Why is it that you think this work became so popular?
That's a great question. For one, it goes to show the power of foundation money. The three cooperative studies on white and Black people that Carnegie Corporation funded in the 1920s and 1930s, The Poor White Study, An African Survey, and An American Dilemma, were absolutely influential in their distinct geographic regions.
An American Dilemma basically had an open checkbook from Carnegie Corporation. The organization spent about $250,000 in the 1930s and the 1940s. This is a pretty substantial budget during the Great Depression. Myrdal and his funders were able to incorporate a lot of major researchers to collaborate in the making of the project. They also solicited the collaboration of key figures in government. These researchers and government officials became invested in the project. That is another key. It is not only foundation funding, but the process of involving a network of key participants in the process of creating knowledge.
The second point is that it painted a very flattering image of white Americans at a time when they really, really wanted that image. Many around the world wanted it. It was at the very end of the Second World War. Many people wanted to distinguish white Americans from non-Jewish Germans. They wanted to distinguish their subjugation and their genocide of marginalized groups. Myrdal gave them this. He said, you guys — white Americans — are bad in practice, but I've talked to you guys while living in the United States. You guys feel bad about your discriminatory, violent, lethal behavior. You feel guilty. You actually want to be better people, unlike those Germans.
Americans want to hear that they are a really egalitarian people.
And it's really important during this moment, not only nationally, but internationally, during the Second World War and in the post-World war when people such as Myrdal wanted to ensure that the U.S. took on a leading international role.
The third point is that this project was so popular that there were many shorter versions of An American Dilemma, distributed soon after its publication. I think that really helped its popularity — not only because it was disseminated more broadly, but because Myrdal’s argument was simplified in the process. While digesting a 30-page synopsis, for example, a reader wouldn’t get to the point of realizing that Myrdal was talking about assimilation and the disappearance of Blackness in his definition of equality, or that he was speaking from a completely white perspective assuming continued white Anglo-American domination both domestically and internationally. Because, with an emphasis on Americans’ national egalitarian ideals — which Myrdal characterized as the “American Creed” — white readers consulting a synopsis easily could be swept up with its peppy image of white Americans and their resolution to be “better.”
Even more, and even though many people were only reading synopses flattening Myrdal’s definition of equality and his theory of social change in An American Dilemma, they very well knew that it came from a book that was two volumes in length. They knew that it had a lot of data, culled from various leading researchers in the social sciences. There is thus an imagined authority to the project. Even more, without distinguishing Myrdal’s definition of equality and theory of change from the vast collection of data he presented on the various forms of anti-Black discrimination in the country, there came to be a general misperception that he somehow synthesized all social sciences’ viewpoints. For starters, that is impossible. You can't even get four people in a room and synthesize on racial equity, let alone teams of more than 70 researchers. But perhaps because white Americans have had such a simplified view of Black perspectives on equity, it is that much more feasible for sympathetic white readers of An American Dilemma to imagine that Myrdal’s thesis directly related to his data collection and that both his thesis and data collection synthesized a host of ideas on racial equity in the country.
In my book, White Philanthropy, I underscore how it is so important to lean on the critics of An American Dilemma — scholars from Oliver Cox to W. E. B. Du Bois to Ralph Ellison to C.L.R. James. These are all people who saw white supremacy in Myrdal’s definition of racial equality and his theory of social change, and who (alongside many other liberation scholars across the world, including past and present works by Global Majority women) can help us think towards more liberating definitions of racial equality, free of domination.
That’s all to say that, in the U.S., we not only need to scrutinize racial inequality, but also leading definitions of racial equality. As White Philanthropy suggests, Americans need to give more critical attention to the country’s dominant definitions of equality and to the scholarly sources of these influential definitions of equality: who is funding the work, why, and if (and how) the grantee scholar is complementing such intentions for the work. We need to understand that there are many definitions of equality: That defining equality is far from simple, but rather, contentious. That often, dominant definitions of equality in a country are determined by the dominant group. And if that is the case, we have to be sensitive to the fact that these are probably not the richest and most layered definitions of equality, and that they — like Gunnar Myrdal’s definition of equality and theory of social change in An American Dilemma — might still be intrinsically tied to an (inter)national project in white supremacy. And that the critics who can truly see this can help guide us as we try to shape a country and world that is less defined by principles of domination, and thus, more stable, equitable, economically healthy, and mindful of each other’s dignity.