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Tragic Dilemma: The Negro and the American Dream

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy. By Gunnar Myrdal, with the assistance of Richard Sterner and Arnold Rose. Harper and Brothers. 2 volumes, $7.50. Myth of the Negro Past. By Melville J. Ilerskovits. Harper and Brothers. $4.00. Characteristics of the American Negro. Edited by Otto Klineberg. Harper and Brothers. $4.00. The Negro’s Share. By Richard Sterner. Harper and Brothers. $4.50. Patterns of Negro Segregation. By Charles S. Johnson, Harper and Brothers. $3.50. Brown Americans. By Edwin R. Embree. The Viking Press. $2.75. New World A-Coming: Inside Black America. By Roi Ottley. Houghton Mifflin Company. $.100. Race and Rumors of Race: Challenge to American Crisis. By Howard W. Odum, University of North Carolina Press. $2.00. The Race Question and the Negro: A Study of the Catholic Doctrine on Interracial Justice. By John LaFarge, S. J. Longmans, Green and Company. $2.50.

The English, so their critics have sometimes said, are bound to strike foreign observers as hypocritical in behavior, not because their morals are so low but because their ideals are so high. This is a view that can be applied to any society. It is in something of the same spirit, I take it, that Gunnar Myrdal reports our treatment of the Negro as America’s greatest and most conspicuous scandal. “It is,” he writes, “tremendously publicized and democratic America will continue to publicize it.”

It is a commonplace among sociologists in their attempt to understand the problem of social relationships that in human society we have both a natural order of things and an ideal scheme of values. It is no denial of this view to add that in spite of science, the natural order is not completely understood; and in spite of ethical tensions, the ideal system is never completely realized. This dualism is well illustrated in the field of government. Here when we wish to give a naturalistic account of why things happen as they do, we speak in disparaging terms of politicians and of “play-ing politics.” When we wish to talk of our ideals, we speak of “Democracy” and the “American Dream.” We know, if we are realistic, that these two schemes of things are not -one and the same; yet we also know, if we are realists, that they cannot be kept apart. That everything natural has its ideal extension and everything ideal has its natural basis is an explanation of collective morality that dates back to Aristotle, if not beyond.

The publication of the Carnegie Study of the Negro in American Life, directed by Gunnar Myrdal, distinguished Swedish economist, is bound to encounter varied reactions from the North, the South, the Negro, and the social science fraternity. Along with seven other volumes on the Negro, the study contrasts the scheme of things as they are with the scheme of things ideal—what the Negro has with what the Negro has been taught to expect under the American Dream of equality of opportunity.


Belonging as they do to the more fact-finding type of analysis, the four supporting volumes of the Carnegie Study offer less difficulty to the reviewer. Different contributions consider problems of the African background, Negro char- acteristics, living standards, and the extent and effect of segregation.

Melville J. Herskovits in “Myth of the Negro Past” not only takes the position that many of the Negro’s characteristic traits are survivals of African culture rather than , adjustments to American conditions, but he appears to believe that this will greatly increase the Negro’s prestige in America. Herskovits probably knows more about African origins than anyone in this country, but he is likely to be regarded as a zealot. The problem of Africanisms is amazingly complicated, covering as it does many fields—including music, the dance, linguistics, religion, mores and manners—in which no one person can presume to be expert. The “myth” idea—a view attributed to American writers that the Negro had no cultural past—is definitely overworked. Under compulsion to correct the story, Herskovits magnifies the gaps in previous studies, indulges in speculations as to what would be found if research were made in Africa, and in general shows a lack of statistical feeling in evaluating the proportion of Africanisms in the total culture pattern of the American Negro. Since what the Negro wants is integration in our national culture, this volume bears little relation to the thesis of the main study.

Otto Klineberg and his collaborators attack the problem of group differences, so well summarized in Klineberg’s book on “Race Differences,” published in 1935. Against the background of popular views, “the stereotypes,” this volume presents an analysis of scientific studies on the “Characteristics of the American Negro” in intelligence and personality followed by a valuable review of racial attitudes. Concluding sections are devoted to the status of the hybrid, the problems of race mixture and of mental disease among Negroes. These studies are by different writers and could be better integrated in approach and point of view. None of these studies can carry us beyond the views now predominant in science; namely, those based on individual rather than race differences, with potential cultural equality envisaged at some indefinite future. Neither of these views has gotten over into the popular mind, and it is doubtful in view of the prevalence of other attitudes such as anti-Semitism that their general acceptance would uproot race prejudice. The total effect of this volume is to inculcate a deep scepticism, no doubt healthy in the present state of science but hardly adequate to the task of realizing the ideals inherent in the American Dream.

Economic advancement is basic to the future progress of the Negro. Richard Sterner’s “The Negro’s Share” gives an account of the extent to which the Negro shares in the good things of American life. Family income, jobs, housing, consumer’s goods, medical care, Social Security, public Assistance, and relief are treated for the depression decade, It is no news that the Negro’s share is low, but until these things were put down in statistics, no one could be sure how low. Conditions in agriculture and small business hardly justify the hopes formerly held for the rise of Negro ownership in the program of self-help, once effectively advocated by Booker Washington. In the domain of social welfare, for example, equal opportunity must wait on coverage of all occupations by Social Security. Even the Negro’s right to employment may depend on public action to overcome discrimination in labor unions and in industry. These conclusions are implicit rather than expressed, for in the main Sterner is chary of drawing conclusions. The volume is necessarily dry and precise in style, weighted as it must be with a great amount of detail. Readers will find it a valuable reference for the period treated.

“Patterns of Negro Segregation” by Charles S. Johnson does more than reveal the disturbing facts of segregation. It shows the infinite range and variety of segregation and suggests the difficulty that Negroes in a mobile society have in conforming to patterns that vary from place to place. The first part of the book treats segregation in its formal institutions, its social conventions, its legal codes and its social ideology. Examples cited give human interest to a treatment like Charles Mangum’s “Legal Status of the Negro,” still the outstanding study in its field. Part Two shows the response of the Negro to these patterns in terms of personality and psychological traits. One important doctrine of racial adjustment is dependent on the formula of “separate” but “equal” facilities. This volume indicates the difficulties that must be overcome if separate facilities for the race are to be made “equal.” Throughout Johnson writes with the cool detachment for which he is noted.

Other volumes not sponsored by the Foundation add their impact, including a revision by Edwin R. Embree of his “Brown Americans,” first published in 1931. Well suited to the general reader is Roi Ottley’s “New World A-Com-ing,” a Negro newspaper man’s account of what the Negroes are doing and thinking. Ottley knows Harlem and he knows most of the Negro leaders about whom he writes so reveal-ingly in chatty, intimate style. There is a zest about the volume and a fair amount of temperance and objectivity in treatment of racial issues. His position, however, is not to be mistaken and, since it fits in so neatly with Myrdal’s thesis, I am tempted to quote a pertinent paragraph:

Negroes may generally quarrel among themselves about minor issues, but on the question of their rights—moral, economic, and political—which to them means the right to integration in American life, they form a solid bloc, each member of it being fiercely group conscious. They have learned, and learned well, the lesson taught that no individual can rise far above the condition of his race—the lash of color prejudice cuts deeply, equally.

Howard W. Odum’s “Race and Rumors of Race” is rumor clinic and catharsis combined. If an over-dose of gossip could cure gossip mongers, this book should be a cure for all rumor mongers of race conflict in days of global war. All the underground stories of icepicks, bus incidents, Eleanor Clubs, and interracial violence are brought out in the open and repeated until the reader, knowing that they cannot all be true, comes to realize the psychological motivation behind the fantastic process by which rumors spread. The volume represents a new departure in research in the contemporary scene and the documentation of these rumors is as valuable as it is tragic. Even more valuable is the accompanying commentary and discussions of the trend of racial tension as it existed in 1942 and 1943. The role of the extremist, North and South, white and colored, is critically evaluated by this distinguished student of Southern affairs. Possible answers are focused on the question continually asked, “What is the way out, and the way on?” Here in convenient form are the deliberations of the Durham, the Atlanta, and the Richmond Conferences, out of which has grown the hopeful new movement of the Southern Regional Council. The volume is, as Dr. Odum writes, “literally an affectionate appeal to all the people of the Nation and a challenge to its leadership . . . in facing truths wherever found, in the asking of important questions and in the search for important answers.”


It is the merit of Myrdal’s monumental work, “An American Dilemma” that he sets a detailed factual study of things as they are against a more or less explicit statement of the American creed of things as we wish them to be. This, it will be realized, is contrary to the practice of most American social scientists who profess that they are content to develop the facts, let the values fall where they may. Interestingly enough, to Myrdal this approach leads only to confusion, since the basic assumptions of any scholar writing in a highly controversial field are likely to consist of concealed values, no matter how great his claim to scientific detachment. Man is, as Aristotle told us, a political animal, and social science in this sense is political science.

While Myrdal points out that our social science “has lately developed along a deterministic tract of amoralistic non-concernedness,” the late P. P. Keppel, in introducing the study, speaks of the Foundation as limiting itself to its proper function: namely, “to make the facts available and let them speak for themselves and . . . not undertake to instruct the public as to what to do about them . . From Myrdal’s point of view, the explanation of things as they are is as likely to be a tissue of rationalizations as a reflection of reality. Thus the social myth that dies the hardest death in the mind of the South is the myth of the Negro as a happy and satisfied race. It seems the fate of war to show how short of the truth this myth has fallen. It is hardly possible for a people to nerve themselves to the effort required by modern war without belief in a cause, a cause which in the abstract is so right, so just and universal, that it can be applied to all men. In our case, that cause is democracy and the philosophy of the equality of opportunity which is the heritage of Christianity and the Enlightenment to Western Civilization. In World War II as in World War I, the Negro’s new aggressiveness came as a shock to the mind of the South. It has been blamed on outside agitation and on unscrupulous leaders, but it could just as well be blamed on the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, Universal Education, Universal Suffrage, and the Sermon on the Mount. This is simply to say that there are no Negro rights as such; there are only human rights. It is to these rights that the Negro aspires, and under our system it is evident that he can do no other.

In war, these considerations come to the surface. We can show this by the semantic analysis of the simple proposition that now is the time to fight for Democracy. To the majority of Americans this means that now is the time to fight to hold what we have. To another group it means that now is the time to fight for something we have never had before. The first view demands unity; the second makes a demand for justice.

“The American Dilemma” is of the widest interest, then, because it attempts to face the problem of values in a controversial field that touches everv facet of American culture. If social ideals are accepted on data alongside the presentations of conditions as they are, the student of society faces the task of trying to reconcile two levels of reality. If economic planning, according to Myrdal’s view, be accepted as the means of getting from where we are in the fields of production and distribution to where we want to go in the improvement of the standards of living of the people, then social engineering in the broad sense may be considered as a means of resolving ethical tensions. Such tensions, it is assumed, exist in the mind of every individual who is conscious of the gap between what he assumes to exist and what he assumes to be possible and ideal. Moreover, such tensions exist in the mind of every one who becomes conscious of the difference between the claims he makes for himself and his children under the American creed and the claims he is willing to grant the Negro. Thus, the Negro problem exists in the mind of every white citizen who comes to realize the distinction he has made between human rights and Negro rights. The Negro problem has its psychiatric overtones, for it is also a problem of the split personality and the divided conscience.

John La Farge’s “The Race Question and the Negro” invokes this same approach in a study of the Catholic Doctrine on interracial justice and Christian charity. While it may be admitted that no organized religious group lives up to its stated ideals, the Catholic Church does have a systematic body of doctrine running from Scripture and the Church Fathers to the latest encyclical of the Pope. It is the contributon of this book to state the implication of this doctrine of the equality of men and the essential unity of the human race. While Catholicism believes that a lasting world unity is only to be realized when all mankind is in- corporated in the Mystical Body of Christ, Father La Farge holds that to “proclaim that all attempts at interracial justice are nonsensical until the world is converted to Christ makes dramatic material for sermons, but practically speaking such a doctrine claims an empty and objectively harmful alibi for avoiding the toilsome details of social reconstruction. The test of genuine social statesmanship is the ability to determine those points of a sound social order which can be unyieldingly maintained in the present divided condition of the world.”

If such ideals are not acceptable, the whites, Myrdal indicates, have the power to make the caste system legal and orderly either with the Negro’s consent or without it. They do not plan such changes, for they cannot afford to compromise the American Dream. As a result, the Negro is awarded the law as his weapon and every decision of the Supreme Court on Constitutional issues brings him nearer to the realization of civil rights. Myrdal, accordingly, will not accept a frank and brutal statement of exploitation, coercion, and disregard of personality as representative of things as they are, because both in the Nation and the South he sees Americans everywhere repudiating Fascism and denying its implications.

With such an approach, it is surprising that Myrdal has no course of social action to present. His conclusions are those of an optimist without a program of meliorism. He resembles the social scientists he has criticised because he concludes by pointing to the long-run effect of social trends. The trend of unionization, social legislation, and national planning will tend to break down economic discrimination— the one type that is both strong and important in the North. There will be increased integration of the South in the national scheme of things and it will be on the basis of the American creed. The Southern liberal will support the doctrine of “separate and equal” facilities, but he will more and more emphasize the aspect of “equal” facilities. This formula, however, does not apply to suffrage, and the South continues to disfranchise the Negro, contrary to the clear precept of the American creed and the Constitution. Poll tax laws and literacy tests will come to mean less and less as the economic and educational status of the South continues to rise.

It is notable, he holds, that the three great wars waged by this country have served to advance the status of the Negro. The Revolution started the development which j ended slavery in Northern States; the Civil War gave the Negro emancipation and civil status on paper; World War I started the great migration which gave the Negro his entrance into industry. And now, World War against Fascism—what will it do?

Since recourse to Civil War is out of the question, writes Myrdal, things have to be settled by political means. National planning cannot leave out the South nor can it humor too much the South’s irrationality. And this is where Myrdal leaves the future—in the lap of politics.

One does not have to be very realistic about American politics to point out several considerations already evident that render this view doubtful. The American Dilemma is partly due to the fact that ethical dualism about the place of the Negro exists in every region of our domain. North, East, and West admittedly have their own variety of “bad conscience.” Myrdal quotes a comment familiar in North- ern cities: “Negroes here should be in the South. They should never have come to Milwaukee, for by so doing they have created a social problem for the city,”

Moreover, the study underestimates the strength of local government and states’ rights in American Federalism, a tradition which the Republican Party is usually willing to aid whenever it serves to protect the system of “individual enterprise” against Federal planning. It must be realized that many of our recent gains in social legislation were erected on the very shaky foundation of “regulation of interstate commerce.” Third, it takes little account of the cycle of liberal and conservative trends that appear to dominate America’s political life. If America reverts, as appears likely, from Planning to Normalcy after this war, it will be by means of an alliance between orthodox Republicanism fearing economic change and Southern conservatism fearing Negro rights—an alliance which many feel has already scuttled the New Deal.

Rather than conclude this review with doubtful assurances, let us conclude it with questions still unanswered. For men of good will the problem of progress in racial adjustment is still one of tactics. But what constitutes optimum tactics? Does any one know? Will we know a hundred years from now?


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