PBS Documentary Examines Gunnar Myrdal and Race in U.S., Past and Present

By Mark Walsh — February 23, 2015 3 min read
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Footnote 11 in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is probably the most famous in the court’s history.

Looking to bolster the proposition that segregation had harmful effects on the minds of black schoolchildren, Chief Justice Earl Warren cited five works of social science, concluding with, “And see generally Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944).”

The reference was to Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, who was commissioned in 1938 by the Carnegie Corporation to study race in America. His massive work documented the conflict between American ideals and the realities of racism.

A new hourlong documentary, “American Denial,” premiering on PBS Monday night as part of the series “Independent Lens” (10 p.m. Eastern time; check local listings0, looks at Myrdal’s work in the context of race relations in America today. The documentary by director Llewellyn Smith certainly is timely given the nation’s spate of racially charged news developments.

Ultimately, I found it relevant and probably essential to juxtapose the two eras. But I was left wanting to see and hear more about Myrdal’s work, especially about the time after the publication of An American Dilemma. Yes, the film notes the reference to with work in the Brown decision, but it isn’t much more than a passing discussion.

After devoting most of the first half of the documentary to Myrdal, with some excellent archival footage and audio of the economist, Smith switches to some segments about race attitudes of today. That’s OK. The documentary is not part of “The American Experience” history series, and it doesn’t promote itself as a comprehensive film bio of Myrdal.

I just would have like to have seen more about the reaction to Myrdal’s work after it was published. This void sent me to my bookshelves for Richard Kluger’s comprehensive history of the Brown case, Simple Justice.

In the 1975 work, Kluger quotes his interview with then-retired Justice Tom Clark, who said he and Justice Hugo Black had told Warren that citing Myrdal in the Brown opinion wouldn’t go down well in the South.

Kluger put it this way: “Myrdal’s compendious assault on the brutalities of American racism had by then, a decade after its publication, become a dagger in the flesh of the white South; its author, moreover, was both foreign and leftward-tilting in his political orientation and therefore prone to ready vilification through the old Confederacy.”

(Kluger’s tome has Myrdal references sprinkled throughout. There’s a concise discussion of Myrdal and An American Dilemma in Chapter 1 of Gene Roberts’ and Hank Klibanoff’s 2006 book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.)

The second half of the “American Denial” documentary explores such hot-button racial issues as “stop and frisk” practices, the incarceration of African-American men, and racial patterns in crime, poverty, and education.

Among the more noteworthy talking heads in the documentary are Danielle S. Allen, a political theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princetown, N.J.; Sissela Bok, the ethicist and philosopher who is a daughter of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal; and Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology professor at Columbia University.

Venkatesh notes in the film that when his students hear about the American South of the era when Myrdal was studying it, they are astounded by the plight of African Americans. “They say it sounds like a Third World country,” he says.

The film includes a modern-day demonstration of the “doll studies” of sociologist Kenneth B. Clark, who was also cited in Footnote 11 of the Brown decision. The studies found black children finding white dolls to be more desirable than black dolls.

The trouble with the attention to racial issues of today is that basically one-half of an hourlong documentary only allows for a fairly superficial treatment of some major issues.

The film comes back to Myrdal at the end to take note of his death. (He died at age 88 in 1987.) The New York Times obituary of Myrdal says that in his 70s, he had considered updating An American Dilemma, but found he didn’t have the energy for it.

He also “confessed to errors,” in the original work, the Times said, including that he had underestimated the degree of racial bias in the North and had failed to predict the civil rights upheaval in the 1950s and 60s in the South.

“American Denial” is a good starting point for a discussion of Myrdal and of the lingering issues of race in society. But there’s room for more.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.