Challenging the U.S. Conscience

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As the United States waged war in Europe against fascism, a leading European intellectual issued a clarion call for America to mount a similar battle on the homefront: a crusade against racism. Published in 1944, Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy was never a best seller. But its influence on U.S. opinionmakers was profound.

By underscoring the contradiction between American democratic ideals and their betrayal by the accepted realities of racial segregation and subordination, the book represented a forceful challenge to the national conscience.

"Its very size, range, and completeness made its findings seem almost inarguable," writes Richard Kluger in Simple Justice, his 1976 history of the struggle against school segregation that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education.

Coming a decade before the Supreme Court's historic 1954 decision, the book became instant fodder for the lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who were chipping away at state-sanctioned segregation. And that the high court took notice of it was undeniable: An American Dilemma was one of a handful of social science works cited by the justices in a famous footnote to the Brown decision supporting their conclusion that segregation damaged black schoolchildren.

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Page 29

Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Challenging the U.S. Conscience
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