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American Dilemma, An


AMERICAN DILEMMA, AN. Gunnar Myrdal (1898–1987), a Swedish sociologist, was chosen by the Carnegie Corporation in 1938 to make a large-scale study of American race relations. After a five-year research effort, which involved the hiring of seventy-five assistants, Myrdal published the two meaty, densely documented volumes of An American Dilemma in 1944. The "dilemma" of the title was that white Americans said they believed in human freedom and equality—were actually fighting for these principles at the time in World War II—yet systematically denied freedom and equality to their own African American population.

The book became a classic as the most thorough study of American racism undertaken up to that time; it was something of a bible to the early civil rights movement in the 1950s. Myrdal was impressed by Americans' idealism and felt confident that if they fully understood their racial situation they would revolt against its injustice and reform it. He emphasized that as black Americans were released from segregation and given greater opportunities, they would demonstrate that their subordination had been environmental, not hereditary or intrinsic.

After 1960, however, as the civil rights movement became more militant and as racial issues underwent more intensive study, the reputation of An American Dilemma declined rapidly for its relative neglect of economic-power and social-class issues.


Jackson, Walter A. Gunnar Myrdal and America's Conscience: Social Engineering and Racial Liberalism, 1937–1987. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Southern, David. Gunnar Myrdal and Black-White Relations: The Use and Abuse of "An American Dilemma," 1944–1969. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.


See alsoCivil Rights Movement ; Race Relations .

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