Post-Raciality in Education: Revisiting Myrdal’s “American Dilemma”

Vol. 36 No. 4


Anthony Asadullah Samad is a professor of political science at East Los Angeles College, a syndicated columnist, and the author of three books on race, politics, and social construction.

Fifty-five years after the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education , 347 U.S. 483 (1954), with racial separation legally eradicated, de facto segregation remains. The education divide in America has long been rooted in the racial divide that allowed great resource disparities to exist in the social-construction context of “separate but equal.” Law as a race caste system (de jure segregation) reinforced educational disparities that, in many ways, still exist.

De facto segregation, in what is being called America’s “post-racial” period, offers an inequality segue most reflected in educational outcomes. Jim Crow schooling had much more damaging effects than first imagined, yet many argue that the social ills of today cannot be tied to the problems of deficient education. Many of those same critics argue that the Supreme Court’s reversing itself, allowing resegregation and abandoning the course of equal education, cannot be blamed for the state of education in the same way that unemployable African Americans who cannot find work in urban communities with no jobs can be blamed on being uneducated by failing schools. See Peter H. Irons, Jim Crow’s Children: the Broken Promise of the Brown Decision (2002). Irons offers another analogy: to assume that two generations of desegregation would erase the educational harm of the preceding five or six generations is simply wrong.

Study after study on the continuing impact of yesterday’s Jim Crow schools on today’s black children argue persuasively that the advantages of education are intergenerational as grandparents pass along their advantages and disadvantages to parents who pass them on to their children. See Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, editors, The Black-White Test Score Gap (1998).

So how can educational disparities be explained long after Jim Crow is considered dead, and racial differences in America are seen as largely mitigated to “post-racial” status?

The first study on race in America revealed some social observations of how the race caste system in America was upheld and enforced. Invisible systems and enforcement of social norms and attitudes played significant roles in what minorities were exposed to (and held from) in the context of social, economic, and political benefits—benefits that were passed from one generation to another. The study, published as a book in 1944 by author Gunnar Myrdal, was entitled, appropriately enough, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Thus, race was finally acknowledged in the country’s academic discourse, and American racism was finally recognized as an obstacle to the promotion of egalitarian values in America.

Though framed as “the Negro problem,” the Myrdal study, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation in 1937, officially chronologized the presence, influences, and problems of the African American as part and parcel of the social, political, and economic changes that were taking place in American society. Myrdal, a Swedish social economist and international scholar, was hired to lead a “comprehensive study on the Negro in the United States, to be undertaken in a wholly objective and dispassionate way as a social phenomenon.” Myrdal at ix.

The selection of Myrdal was widely questioned by both blacks and whites, who thought an American scholar should lead the study. The most frequently mentioned candidate was W.E.B. DuBois, who had written extensively on the subjects of race, democracy, and social construction over the prior fifty years. DuBois’s writings were largely influenced by the shift in political and social policy brought on by the Plessy decision ( Plessy v. Ferguson , 163 U.S. 537 (1896)), so he was “on record” as having already studied much of what Myrdal was being asked to do. DuBois, however, was seen as too much of a “racial” radical, whose recent shifts in political ideology called into question his ability to be objective in his analysis. In fact, the Carnegie Corporation did not think there was anybody born and socialized in the United States who could provide an objective, unbiased study on race relations in America. The corporation not only wanted an “outside perspective,” but wanted to assess how America’s treatment of the Negro was perceived in the global community, and they gave Myrdal a free hand to select whatever resources he needed to complete the study.

The Myrdal study crystallized racial and sociological arguments that the NAACP had contemplated using but could not in legal cases. It did so by validating “separate but equal” policy in an academic, qualitative study that whites couldn’t discount as reason-laden advocacy on the part of the afflicted masses. Myrdal’s “outside perspective” provided a kind of credibility that no American could offer in a “self-critique,” just as Alexis de Tocqueville, the French sociologist, had provided in the early nineteenth century, when he offered outside “observations” on democracy and American culture—absent the race critique, as slavery prohibited most blacks from having any social standing among whites.

Myrdal’s work was the first academic research study on the state of the racial political economy in the United States, and the socioeconomic effects of race culture in America. In what he called his “No Social Equality” theory, Myrdal analyzed the construction of America’s race caste system and identified how that system was upheld and enforced. This social construct, Myrdal surmised, was centered around the “aversion to amalgamation,” whose relative significance was attached to nine various measures that, depending upon their degree of expediency or necessity, must be upheld. Id . at 587. These aversion measures to uphold the American race caste system, as Myrdal observed them, were, in rank order,

(1) the ban on intermarriage and other sex relations involving white women and colored men takes precedence before everything else. It is the end for which the other restrictions are arranged as means. Thereafter follow: (2) all sorts of taboos and etiquettes in personal contacts; (3) segregation in schools and churches; (4) segregation in hotels, restaurants, and theaters, and other public places where people meet socially; (5) segregation in public conveyances; (6) discrimination in public services; and, finally, inequality in (7) politics, (8) justice and (9) breadwinning and relief. Id . at 587–588.

With these measures in place and the established, deeply entrenched social attitudes toward African Americans being what they were, the study noted that it was extremely difficult for black people to receive justice in any facet of society, cultural or institutional, and that racism was pervasive in the South and the North. (Myrdal called out differences in the North that allowed blacks to vote and work, but suggested that blacks faced greater suppression by law enforcement and covenants that dictated where they lived and restricted their movement significantly.)

Segregation in schools and churches (item 3) was key in that both institutions offered foundational teaching about society that framed long-term ideology (perceptions of the world and knowledge of the world as it relates to oneself) in children. The construction of anti-socialism according to race, and the disparate investments in schools, created disparate learning opportunities that would still be present in public schools at the turn of the twenty-first century. The Myrdal study concluded that social discrimination was powerful as a means of keeping Negroes down in all other respects, acknowledging that it is not possible to isolate a sphere of life and call it strictly “social,” and affirming that the major effect of social inequality was the isolation of blacks to keep them economically subjugated in the race caste system. Id . at 642–644.

The study saw this promotion of social inequality as contrary to the precept of equal opportunity in the American creed, and recognized American segregation as an organized system of racial oppression (through deprivations) set up to restrict opportunities for some individuals. The system forced social and economic restrictions upon the black group by the white group, making the benefits and opportunities throughout society one-sided: whites could come and go as they pleased, socialize as they would (even white males with Negro women), but could never confer their individual benefits to anyone in the black group, lest they be attacked for violating a clearly established “colorline.” Id. at 573–576. This colorline, while always invisible, was thoroughly recognizable in custom and etiquette and was practiced by both blacks and whites.

In contemporary studies of racism and racial oppression, “restricted opportunities” that create social and economic disparities are most visible in employment and education. Race law scholar Kimberle Crenshaw suggests that systemic (or what she calls “black”) subordination that creates racial disparities be measured beyond tangible income and other goods; she has an “expansive view” of the effects of racial oppression that includes one’s intangible well-being. Kimberle Crenshaw, Race, Reform and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law , 101 Harv. L. Rev. 1331 (1988). Access to knowledge is one of these intangibles. Poor education has a direct correlation with poverty. Those who rise out of impoverished conditions rarely do so without quality education and unrestricted social systems that provide opportunities. Restrictions to such systems tend to be one-sided, for the most part, as Myrdal observed in his “No Social Equality” theory sixty-five years ago.

Myrdal called out three points, in particular, that revealed how social inequality was promoted and survived in America.

First, there was the “one-sidedness” in the practice of segregation that allowed whites total liberty to socialize in any way that they saw fit, including socializing among blacks if they chose to. Whites could frequent black churches, black theatres, and black restaurants, and expected to be welcomed by blacks. However, blacks did not have the same liberty to socialize with whites and frequent white establishments. Myrdal’s point was that segregation was a “system of deprivations forced upon the Negro group by the white group,” and as such represented a one-sided legal arrangement, written under the pretext of equality, but only applied, and enforced, against Negroes, which went against the basic premise of egalitarian democracy. Myrdal at 577.

Second, Myrdal noted that the rules of segregation were often enforced beyond what the law allowed. He pointed out that the police and the courts “are active” in enforcing not just law, but also customs far outside those set down in legal statutes, and that the various “enforcements” (threats, intimidations, and open violence) were to be applied by whites on blacks, but never by blacks on whites. On occasion, enforcement was not just directed at Negroes, but at “nigger-loving casteless whites,” who chose not to recognize and uphold the custom of an enforced racial caste system. Id . at 577.

Third, and most important, Myrdal noted that whites understood very clearly what they were doing in setting up a system to serve whites. The social rules, rituals, and etiquettes they established also sought to protect whites; and while an individual white could waive most of the customs, in terms of his individual practice, one person could not waive the societal customs that benefited the total white society—lest they run the of risk of bringing on volatile reactions from the collective white populous, of being labeled a “nigger lover,” and, in a sense, of forfeiting their whiteness—that is, to suffer the same fates exacted on the Negro. Id . at 577.

This early construction of “privilege” according to race, and the one-sidedness that both legal and social engagement offered white students, have allowed educational systems in historically disadvantaged communities where minority students reside, now largely black and Latino, to remain disadvantaged for more than fifty years after Brown desegregated schools.

Myrdal’s study, which hinged on a conflict paradigm—a conflict between liberty, equality, and the American idea of fair play on the one side, and prejudice, self-interest, and habit on the other—was highly celebrated when it was released. However, according to author Mark Tushnet, NAACP officials stated that Myrdal didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know—other than that the country needed to pay attention to what the NAACP had been saying on the question of social inequality, and that sociological arguments on the effects of race discrimination were relevant to both public and legal discourse. Mark Tushnet, The NAACP’s Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925– 1950, 119 (1987).

Myrdal’s study reinforced several themes on the practice of “social inequality” in America—principally, that there was an absence of social equality for the Negro in America, mainly because social relations, as they related to the freedom to pursue personal relations, and the liberty to choose which relations one could pursue, were essentially denied to American Negroes. Myrdal at 573. It offered a break in the ice on segregation policy as the NAACP saw education as the one arena where race disparities were irrefutable, and thus they cited the Myrdal study as a psychological framework for the enforcement of America’s race caste system.

In the years following the publication of An American Dilemma , “issue pluralism” shifted the nation’s focus from one dominant issue (school segregation) to a variety of issues (employment, housing, affirmative action) that presented a whole set of dilemmas in the contemporary issues of race that emerged in the 1980s. Paul M. Sniderman, Philip E. Tetlock, Edward G. Carmines, and Randall S. Peterson, “The Politics of the American Dilemma: Issue Pluralism,” Prejudice, Politics and the American Dilemma (1993) at 212. Society evolved beyond its singular focus on schools, and as the nation’s politics shifted through the civil rights movement, the politics of race became more convoluted. People’s values also came into conflict as society’s values changed, and the level of intensity in the opinions varied from one policy domain to another; the politics of employment are not the same as the politics of housing, nor are they interchangeable with the politics of affirmative action—today instinctively tied to schools (mandatory assignments based on race).

The common thread, however, that runs through what are considered “racial policy issues” is the bigotry factor that will oppose any policies aimed at assisting blacks—whatever the details of the particular policy or domain from which the policy is drawn. But the thread tying race policies together became thinner than commonly supposed as opinions of issues in the post–civil rights era were further studied. Id. at 212–213. Thus, while most of the organized resistance to prevent African American inclusion into mainstream society had subsided, the residual effects of policy and legal barriers challenging how whites’ lives were affected by policies stemming from Brown five decades earlier were still present in many locales.

Historically, resistance has been an underestimated factor in the success of policy implementation. Yet education policy implementation never quite fully took effect because of the resistance against reinvesting in formerly segregated schools in the post- Brown era beyond what was necessary to make them equal in teaching experience, resource capacity, and educational planning (AP courses, college counselors, etc.).

In the “age of Obama,” the nation wondered how race would play in the election of the president of the United States, as America has always been a nation where xenophobes were never too far removed from their racial doubts that blacks (and others) can acculturate—even lead their Eurocentric society without changing their racially charged cultural norms. Few persons of color can acculturate in the same way, because Myrdal’s suggestion that there is a subliminal “aversion to amalgamation” is still present in American society. President Obama has proved he is different in every way, although he comes from many of the same vestiges of social ills that entrap the poor. His escape hatch was that he took advantage of public education, passed on to him by his mother and father, and has, in turn, passed it on to his children.

We now know one thing, though. Race is still a salient issue in American education, as many children of color are trapped in restricted opportunities that limit their life chances. Post-raciality does not apply when it comes to America’s public schools, which are still as racially imbalanced and as resourcefully disparate as ever.


  • About the Magazine

  • Copyright Information