Relations: The American Dilemma
Perspectives, Vol. 1, No. 4
1964, the editors of the Saturday Review asked twenty seven
esteemed men and women of letters this question, "what
books published during the past four decades most significantly
altered the direction of [the American] society?" Gunnar
Myrdal's An American Dilemma received more votes than any
other books except John Maynard Keynes' The General Theory
of Employment, Interest and Money. Today, Keynes and his general
theory still enjoy a reputation at the household level. On
the contrary, few people in the young generation are aware
of Myrdal's book. Many Ph.D. students of economics have never
heard of Myrdal or his book, although this great Swedish scholar
shared the Nobel Prize in economics with Hayek in 1974. The
fading fame of Myrdal's work in the United States is due to
the fact that the problem of racial relations has disappeared
from the center of public debate since the 1970s. However,
this by no means implies that the racial problem in America
has been solved.
and the Dilemma: An Anecdote
late 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, the Carnegie
Corporation decided to conduct an in-depth study of Afro-Americans.
The next year, the Corporation started an intensive search
for a social scientist of unquestioned talent and stature
to direct this study. American scholars, both black and white,
were excluded from the list of candidates, because they were
thought to have too much prejudice to write an objective and
fresh study. The list of potential directors became even shorter
when the Carnegie Corporation narrowed it down to European
scholars from countries with scientific traditions but without
imperialistic interests. The search then focused on Scandinavia
and Switzerland. Eventually, the Swedish economist Gunnar
Myrdal was selected as the director of this project. Starting
from 1938, Myrdal and his associates worked comprehensively
on the "Negro problem," which culminated in the
publication of the one-and-half-thousand-page classic An American
Dilemma in 1944.
to Myrdal, the American dilemma of his time referred to the
co-existence of the American liberal ideals and the miserable
situation of blacks. On the one hand, enshrined in the American
creed is the belief that people are created equal and have
human rights; on the other hand, blacks, as one tenth of the
population, were treated as an inferior race and were denied
numerous civil and political rights. Myrdal's encyclopedic
study covers every aspect of black-white relations in the
Unites States up to his time. He frankly concluded that the
"Negro problem" is a "white man's problem."
That is, whites as a collective were responsible for the disadvantageous
situation in which blacks were trapped. Myrdal's work had
a great influence on the American civil rights movement. Today,
after more than fifty years since the publication of Myrdal's
book, it is hard for us to appreciate fully the extent of
his boldness. Mrydal's work, and especially the history he
documented, should not be forgotten.
Relations: from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement
the one hundred years from the Civil War to the civil rights
movement, black-white relations in the United States were
characterized by legalized racial discrimination.
the nineteenth century, most blacks lived in the rural south.
After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment of the United
States constitution outlawed the slavery system. During the
Reconstruction period (1865-1877), some attempts were made
to extend various civil rights fully to African Americans,
which led to the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 1871 and
1875. These acts granted African Americans such freedoms as
the right to sue and be sued, to testify in the court, and
to hold personal property and real estate. The 1875 Civil
Rights Act attempted to guarantee to the African Americans
those social rights that were still withheld. It penalized
innkeepers, proprietors of public establishments and owners
of public conveyances for discriminating against blacks in
public accommodations, but the Act was invalidated by the
United States Supreme Court in 1883 on the ground that not
being discriminated against in public accommodations was not
properly a civil right and hence it was not a field for federal
the Reconstruction, whites soon regained their dominance in
the south. The southern states and municipalities started
to pass a series of statutes that would wipe out many rights
newly acquired by blacks. Those statutes were the so-called
Jim Crow Laws, named after a black character in minstrel shows.
Blacks were forced to attend separate schools and colleges,
to occupy special sections in railway cars and buses, and
to use separate public facilities; they were forbidden to
sit with whites in most places of public amusement. In 1896,
the Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate
but equal" public facilities were legal, putting a federal
stamp of approval on the Jim Crow system. This decision caused
a boom of Jim Crow Laws in the south. In 1908 (Berea College
v. Kentucky) the Supreme Court held that a state could legally
forbid a college, even a private institution, to teach whites
and blacks at the same time and place. The period of 1900
to 1920 extended racial segregation to all public transportation
and education facilities, even to hospitals, churches and
jails. By the end of World War I, blacks and whites in the
south were rigidly separated by law. The Jim Crow system would
govern the southern states until after the World War II.
the turn of the twentieth century, blacks started a massive
migration from the rural south to the northern industrial
bases, such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. This migration
was on the one hand due to the harsh living conditions in
the rural south after several years of unfavorable climate;
on the other hand, the number of immigrants arriving in America
from Europe declined because of the two World Wars, which
created a demand for blacks as unskilled labors.
between blacks and whites in the north was characterized by
residential segregation. When blacks moved into northern cities,
they first settled down in some neighborhoods with low socio-economic
conditions. As the fraction of blacks became higher in a neighborhood,
whites began to move out at an accelerating rate so as to
avoid contacts with blacks. Some neighborhoods soon became
predominantly black. As the black population grew, they need
to move to nearby white neighborhoods. However, whites tried
many things to resist the "invasion" by blacks.
They threatened their potential black invaders; they bombed
their first black neighbors (Drake and Cayton, 1945). In many
white neighborhoods, landlords signed agreements that prohibited
the sale of properties to blacks. These were the so-called
"restrictive covenants," which were enforceable
by law. The use of restrictive covenants was extensive. For
example, in Chicago, it was estimated that eighty per cent
of the city was covered by such agreements (Myrdal, 1944).
As a result, blacks lived in overcrowded ghettos, where housing
cost was artificially high due to limited supply (Hirsch,
government policies in the 1930s were believed to strengthen
and widen, rather than to mitigate, residential segregation.
The Federal Housing Administration, in effect, extended credits
to blacks only if they built or bought in black neighborhoods
and to whites only if they built in white areas that were
under covenant not to rent or sell to blacks. The United States
Housing Authority and its local affiliates, under the public
(whites') pressure, were forced to build separate housing
projects for blacks and whites (Myrdal, 1944). America's entry
into the Second World War brought full mobilization and a
shortage of factory workers in the north. In response to the
new demand for labor, black migration from south to the north
soared during the 1940s. The new migrants arrived in cities
plagued by intense housing shortages and vacancy rates below
one per cent. Population density within black ghettos increased
to incredible heights, where people were described as "piling
up" (Duncan and Duncan, 1957). This stage in the process
of ghetto formation increased black isolation to an extreme,
and from this time forward African Americans in large northern
cities were effectively removed -- socially and spatially
-- from the rest of American society. In northern cities,
residential segregation reached such a high level in the 1940s
that an integrated neighborhood was extremely rare to find.
Although without extensive Jim Crow Laws, blacks and whites
attended different schools, went to different hospitals, and
frequented different parks. These were natural results of
residential segregation. Throughout the United States -- in
both southern and northern cities -- the ghetto had become
an enduring, permanent feature of the residential structure
of black community by 1940, and the spatial isolation of blacks
still had another thirty years to increase (Cutler et al 1999).
In 1970, an average black person in Chicago lived in a neighborhood
where 89.2% of the residents were blacks. This fraction was
85.1% in St. Louis, 88.0% in Atlanta, and 84.8% in Baltimore.
Over all northern cities in 1970, an average black person
lived in a neighborhood that was 73.5% black; this number
was 76.4% in southern cities (Massey and Denton, 1993). Although
we often see neighborhoods like Chinatown, "small Italy"
and Jewish ghettos, the level of concentration and isolation
of any other ethnic group is far from being comparable to
the situation of blacks.
of segregation resulted in economic deprivation, social isolation
and psychological alienation of blacks. A bitter fruit of
this was a series of urban riots in the 1960s. The violence
began in Birmingham, Alabama in the summer of 1963. The Los
Angles riot of August 1965 caused $35 million worth of damage
and left 4,000 injured and 34 dead. After sporadic violence
in Chicago and Cleveland in the summer of 1966, a convulsive
wave of mob violence erupted during July and August of 1967,
when black ghettos in sixty American cities exploded in a
cataclysm of frustration and rage. The violence was particularly
destructive in Detroit, Newark and Milwaukee. Martin Luther
King's assassination in April of 1968 ignited riots in more
than one hundred and twenty cities all over the United States
(U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1988).
from the 1930s, blacks enjoyed a somewhat improved economic
status and became more assertive of their rights. Also, influenced
by Myrdal's work and the like, the general public became more
concerned with the welfare of blacks. In 1948, President Truman
issued a directive calling for an end to segregation in the
armed force. In the same year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck
down state enforcement of restrictive covenants in Shelley
v. Kraemer. In 1954, the Supreme Court took a momentous step
in Brown v. Board of Education by ruling that all segregation
in public schools is "inherently unequal" and that
all laws barring blacks from attending public schools with
white pupils are unconstitutional. In this landmark case,
Chief Justice Warren cited Myrdal for evidence. From 1955
to 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. led blacks in Montgomery,
Alabama in a boycott against the municipal bus system, which
ended after the Supreme Court nullified the laws of Alabama
requiring segregation on buses. The Jim Crow system was breaking
down. However, the process of change was never smooth and
peaceful. Southern whites often responded to desegregation
with violence and federal troops were sometimes needed to
preserve order and protect blacks, notably at Little Rock,
Arkansas (1957), Oxford, Mississippi (1962), and Selma, Alabama
(1965). In the late 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement
led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the executive leadership
of President Johnson encouraged the passage of the most comprehensive
civil rights legislation to date, the Civil Rights Act of
1964. It prohibited discrimination in voting, education, and
access to public facilities. Title VI of the act barred the
use of federal funds for segregated programs and schools,
which alone enabled more than twenty per cent of black students
in the south to study in integrated schools. In early 1965,
the Voting Rights Act was passed, through which the federal
government became more actively involved in enforcing the
political enfranchisement of blacks. The issue of housing
segregation was dealt with in the Civil Rights Act of 1968
(Fair Housing Act), which contained a clause barring discrimination
against blacks in the sale or rental of most housing.
of Segregation: from 1970 to Present
rights laws put an end to many forms of legalized segregation
and paved the way for some improvement in blacks' position.
The evidence for this improvement includes a substantial increase
in the number of blacks in professional, technical, managerial
and administrative positions since the early 1960s; a near
doubling of blacks in colleges and universities between 1970
and 1980; and a large increase in home ownership among blacks.
Twice as many black families were earning a middle-class income
in 1982 as in 1960. Furthermore, the number of blacks elected
to public offices more than tripled during the 1970s (Oliver
and Shapiro, 1995). However, residential segregation between
blacks and whites remains at an extremely high levels in the
thirty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act.
to the Fair Housing Act, explicit discrimination against blacks
became rare in housing market. In the early 1970s, many black
families left the urban ghettos and moved into predominantly
white suburban areas. People saw this as a sign of the reversal
of residential segregation. However, the reversal never happened.
is true that more and more whites tend to believe that they
don't have the right to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods.
But this does not mean more and more whites like to live with
black neighbors. Racial prejudice may still be in many whites'
mind. Since the 1960s, the force sustaining residential segregation
has changed (Cutler et al, 1999). In the 1940s, whites could
simply shut blacks out of their neighborhoods through restrictive
covenants or other discriminatory barriers. As a consequence,
blacks were packed into overcrowded residential areas, and
they had to pay higher price or rent for equivalent housing
(Weaver, 1948). After the removal of the discriminatory barriers,
blacks could move to anywhere within their price range. What
many whites did then was to run away whenever blacks came.
Today, many whites are willing, and are able, to pay a premium
to live in a predominantly white neighborhood. Equivalent
housing in white areas commands a higher rent (Kiel and Zabel,
1996). More vacancies are found in black neighborhoods, contrary
to the situation found four decades ago. By bidding up the
price of housing, many white neighborhoods again effectively
shut out blacks, because blacks are unwilling, or unable,
to pay the premium to buy entry into white neighborhoods.
The suburbanization of blacks in the 1970s only resulted in
the shift of the color line and the expansion of ghettos.
In the 1990s, residential segregation remains at its extreme,
which is described by sociologists as "hypersegregation"
and "American Apartheid" (Massey and Denton, 1993).
to a number of researchers, the economic status of blacks
compared to that of whites has, on average, deteriorated since
the early 1970s (Oliver and Sharpiro, 1995). Black unemployment
rates are more than twice those of whites. Black youths also
have more than twice the jobless rate as white youths. Nearly
one out of three blacks lives in poverty, compared with fewer
than one in ten whites. Nearly one in four blacks remains
outside private health insurance or Medicaid coverage. Infant
mortality rates have been dropping steadily since 1940 for
all Americans, but the odds of dying shortly after birth are
consistently twice as high for blacks as for whites. Close
to half of all black children officially live in poor households.
More than sixty per cent of black babies were born with a
single mother. A majority of black children live in families
that include their mother but not their father (Oliver and
Shapiro, 1995). Generations of spatial isolation and psychological
alienation generate a culture in black ghettos, which is defined
in opposition to the basic ideals and values of American society.
For example, some smart black students have to intentionally
flunk some exams so as to be accepted by other black students
as friends (Fordham and Ogbu, 1986).
current generation of black children are luckier than their
grandparents, because they face much less explicit discrimination
based on their skin color. However, there is one disadvantageous
position that most of them still cannot avoid: they will grow
up in a predominantly black neighborhood, where the typical
socio-economic characteristics are high poverty, welfare dependence,
single parenthood, high mortality rate, school dropouts, drug
abuse, high crime rate, lack of job opportunities, high unemployment
rate, and an alienated culture (Wilson 1987, Massey and Denton
1993). Today, in black ghettos is a concentration of almost
all social and economic problems that the United States has.
What is worse is that the mainstream society becomes more
and more indifferent to this reality. Since blacks have acquired
their civil and political rights, many whites tend to think
blacks' problems are now their own problems. Many whites pretend
not to see the problems by intentionally staying away from
black communities. The American dilemma is not solved. It
only takes a different form now. Fifty-six years ago, Myrdal
regarded the "Negro problem" as America's greatest
failure. This remains true today. At the end of his 1944 book,
Myrdal challenged the United States: "America is free
to choose whether the Negro shall remain her liability or
become her opportunity." This choice is still there.
Make Men Wise: A Remark
people around the world admire the liberal ideals in the American
creed. At the same time, we see in America the most mature
democratic system and market economy. It is tempting to think
that a democratic system and a market economy guarantee the
realization of liberal ideals. What we see in the history
of black-white relations in the United States is a caveat.
The one-hundred-year history from the Civil War to the civil
rights movement is an example of the "tyranny of majority"
by which whites as a group discriminated against blacks through
legal means. After the civil rights movement, blacks were
thrown into free markets. However, it is well-known that market
cannot solve the problem of economic inequality that blacks
inherited from a long history. The housing market has replaced
institutionalized discrimination as a driving force behind
residential segregation. When black ghettos magnify the social
and economic problems through reciprocal spillovers of negative
externalities, the market economy can do nothing but see the
poverty culture perpetuating. The experience of blacks in
the United States over the one hundred years before the civil
rights movement is a failure of modern democracy. (Indeed,
the subtitle of Myrdal's book is "The Negro Problem and
Modern Democracy.") Their experience over the past thirty
years is an inherent failure of market economy. Surely we
do not judge a country by looking into its dirtiest corner,
and we should not judge democracy and market economy by highlighting
their failures. However, I think the bitter history of black-white
relations in the United States deserves some deep thoughts
of the learned.
author is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Johns Hopkins
University. This article is written based on the background
knowledge of a research project conducted at the Brookings
Institution in the summer of 1999.)
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