Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

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Student Question

How did Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944) influence American racial relations?

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An American Dilemma posited that the position of African Americans in America was largely the result of a reinforcing feedback loop in which White Americans oppressed African Americans in order to prevent them from succeeding in America. They would then point to that same lack of success as evidence against treating African Americans as equals. Myrdal argued that the only way to correct this cycle was to either cure White Americans of prejudice or improve the position of African Americans so that they could demonstrate their equality. Myrdal also argued that obtaining media attention was necessary for African Americans because Northern Whites at the time were largely ignorant of the situation of African Americans in the country. This anticipated the importance of media coverage during the civil rights movement, which was essential to forcing government action both because of outrage on the part of some Northern Whites and because of embarrassment on the world's stage during the Cold War.

The book also anticipated some of the legislation that was meant to help African Americans, such as Title VII. However, the feedback loops reflected in the book can still be seen at work today. Many White Americans do not understand the difficulties that African Americans have faced when trying to obtain the rights articulated in civil rights laws and, seeing that the African American community has failed to obtain equal success, has returned to a view that there must be something unequal about the community. The continued barriers are largely invisible to those who do not want to see them.

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