Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944) as a Swedish Text: A Further Analysis

An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy
Gunnar Myrdal
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944

In the fall of 1938, the economist and former member of the Swedish parliament Gunnar Myrdal traveled from Stockholm to New York City with his wife and research collaborator, Alva Reimer Myrdal, their three children, and two nannies.1 He was in the United States to begin work on the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s comprehensive study of black Americans.2

Far from being Myrdal’s own idea, the study was commissioned by the elite philanthropic organization, which had spent months searching for an appropriate director to head it. Interestingly, the foundation had never considered an American. This is because Carnegie Corporation president Frederick P. Keppel had deemed Americans too emotionally involved in American race relations to offer any objective analyses of black life in the country. That said, he thought that a white European man could be objective (or rather, trustworthy) in his approach, and even more, that such a person could survey white-black relations in the United States “with an entirely fresh mind.”3

Keppel’s advisers had cautioned that scholars from Nazi and colonial European countries likely would provide prejudicial, rather than objective, examinations of white-black relations by equating this social dynamic with majority-minority relations back home. So he zeroed in on the Scandinavian countries, whose populations he presumed to be homogeneous. He gave consideration to Myrdal after a former colleague in philanthropy mentioned him. By then, Myrdal was a celebrated economist on either side of the Atlantic, an experienced policymaker in Sweden, and an adviser to the Rockefeller organizations on the developing social sciences throughout Europe.4

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