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Published: August 11, 2011

Gunnar Myrdal (1898–1987)

Swedish economist, social scientist and Nobel laureate in economics whose monumental study of American life published in 1944 forced liberal American intellectuals to confront their failure to provide equal educational opportunities to blacks and other disenfranchised Americans. Engaged by the CARNEGIE CORPORATION OF NEW YORK in 1938 to study the social condition of American blacks, Myrdal produced the landmark work An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). What he found was that blacks could not vote in many parts of the United States and, when permitted to attend school, had access to only inferior education. For blacks, as well as Irish, Italian, Polish, Hispanic, Jewish and Roman Catholic Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans, vocational as well as educational opportunities were limited. Although liberal intellectuals including JOHN DEWEY proclaimed the United States a land of inclusive politics and education, there was little question that widespread discrimination based on race, gender and ethnicity was the rule in the educational, political and business establishments. 

Myrdal noted that Americans believed outwardly in the American creed of “liberty, equality, justice, and fair opportunity for everybody,” but inwardly they believed in the inferiority of certain groups and, depending on their circumstances or self-interest, they acted on both sets of beliefs. The “American dilemma” was his term for the contradiction between the creed that most Americans professed and their denial of the most basic civil, political and educational rights to blacks. “The status accorded the Negro in America represents nothing more and nothing less than a century-long lag of public morals.” Myrdal defined the reconciliation of “creed and deed” as the most pressing post– World War II issue for Americans.

Myrdal’s charges were especially stinging for American academicians who routinely taught the American creed to those students they admitted, while refusing admission to students they deemed inferior on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity and, therefore, refusing to teach them. At the time, private institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and many others, along with most major public institutions, not only did not admit women as undergraduates, they also routinely used quotas to limit the admission of virtually every racial, religious and ethnic group other than white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.