An American Dilemma for the 21st Century

On Wednesday, October 30, 2019 nearly two-hundred scholars, leaders, and community members gathered at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for “An American Dilemma for the 21st Century,” a day-long conference marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of Gunnar Mydral’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy and the launch of a digital platform expanding access to the Carnegie-Myrdal research archive.

Published in 1944 by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma remains a seminal text for understanding racism in the United States during the twentieth century. For Myrdal and his collaborators, the central dilemma was the unresolved tension of the “American creed”—the celebration of ideals of equal opportunity and democracy, in the face of deep racial discrimination and inequality. An American Dilemma helped to expose the immoral hypocrisy of legalized anti-Black racism in the US, and informed critical civil rights victories in the post-war era, such as the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

While Myrdal has, deservedly, received considerable praise for the work, lesser-known are the dozens of social scientists who contributed to the publication and its foundational study. Commissioned by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Carnegie-Myrdal Study of the Negro in America includes twenty-nine memoranda written by Myrdal and scholars such as Ralph Bunche, Margaret Brenman, E. Franklin Frazier, Ruth Landes, and S. U. Etuk.

Given the increased visibility of racial antagonism and violence in recent years, coupled with the reemergence of Black-led protests in the aftermath of #BlackLivesMatter, the “American Dilemma for the 21st Century” conference offered an occasion to revisit and reassess the “American creed” and its surrounding tensions.

Throughout the day, panelists explored the multifaceted force of anti-Black racism in the US. In discussions on housing, the economy, policing, and education, the day’s speakers unpacked both historical and contemporary fissures between opportunity and exclusion. Panelists also offered rich reflections on An American Dilemma itself, and offered critiques of the sociopolitical context that motivated the project’s commissioning, author selection, and crafted presentation toward white audiences; many noting the already substantial body of research from Black scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois.

As the conference also served as a launch event for the newly digitized Carnegie-Myrdal research archive, attendees also heard from the creative and curatorial team behind the platform’s design. In a session titled “Out of the Archives,” Christopher Paul Harris, Jonathan Jackson (WeShouldDoItAll), and Myriah Towner demonstrated the platform’s capabilities and described the process of translating a text-heavy archive into a dynamic, attractive, and navigable tool “that anyone can use.” Featured in the demo were memoranda from the study’s “hidden figures,” including downloadable copies of original materials housed at the Schomburg Center.

To close the program, SSRC president Alondra Nelson engaged Professors Jelani Cobb and Phillip Atiba Goff in a stirring conversation that crystallized the importance of historical data in working to remedy both foundational and symptomatic instances of injustice. Echoing remarks made by Dr. Rajiv Sethi in an earlier panel, Dr. Goff encouraged the audience to visit the new Carnegie-Myrdal digital archive, pointing specifically to Raper’s memo. Rich in police data about the use of deadly force, officer and suspect demographics, as well as first-hand interviews, Raper’s memo, according to Goff, offers a unique opportunity to explore theoretical explanations of racial disparities in policing that deviate from popular narratives and interventions focused on “hearts and minds” rather than malignant structural configurations.

In all of the day’s presentations and discussions, the need for leveraging historical data in designing more equitable futures was clear. The An American Dilemma for the 21st Century platform extends that opportunity.

The conference and platform were produced in collaboration the Schomburg and Columbia University, and with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Institute for New Economic Thinking, and the Russell Sage Foundation.