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For The Record: An American Dilemma Still

by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann - 1995

Introduces 21 papers on racial inequality, examining 2 documents that significantly influenced American aspirations early in the century--"An American Dilemma" (Gunnar Myrdal) and "Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas." The article discusses the impact of racial inequality on public education and the role of public schools in achieving racial justice. (Source: ERIC)

In the spring of 1995, it is difficult to write with hope about the prospects for racial justice and equality in the United States. Historically recurrent debates about race and intelligence have been reignited by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's mean-spirited, pseudo-scientific treatise The Bell Curve.[1] Despite the findings of the federal Glass Ceiling Commission, indicating that women and minorities are still disproportionately underrepresented in upper- management jobs in most sectors of the economy, affirmative action is under attack in the U.S. Congress.[2] And relentless efforts are also underway in the Congress to cut back on the public assistance provided to those least able to fend for themselves, especially young, poor single mothers and their children.

Compounding these recent events is new evidence suggesting that continuing poverty and disadvantage among African Americans are in considerable measure a result of white indifference and prejudice. Certainly this is one of the conclusions reached by sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass.[3] Seeking to demonstrate the futility of further debate concerning the primacy of either race or social class in explanations of poverty, the two being integrally connected, Massey and Denton illustrate the ways in which residential segregation, intense poverty, and the emergence of what they describe as "an oppositional culture that devalues work, schooling, and marriage and that stresses attitudes and behaviors that are antithetical and often hostile to success in the larger economy" have interacted with one another to create a largely black underclass that is locked in poverty and alienation.[4]

According to Massey and Denton, residential segregation, which has played a catalytic role in this downward cycle, "continues to exist because white America has not had the political will or desire to dismantle it."[5] Private prejudice and discrimination, combined with the prejudicial policies of banks and real estate companies and reinforced by ineffective government action, have resulted in a situation where individuals, usually ones who have suffered discrimination, have been expected to fight on their own or through nongovernmental advocacy organizations to fulfill their right to equal, desegregated housing. This places an intolerable burden on the victims of discrimination and helps to ensure that the underlying systemic problems will not be addressed. White America could but to date has not been willing to support effective residential desegregation policies.

Massey and Denton's assertion that segregation persists as a result of a failure of political will is echoed by Stanford economist Martin Carnoy in Faded Dreams: The Politics and Economics of Race in America.[6] According to Carnoy, there are three prevalent explanations for continuing black poverty in the United States, these being individual failure, pervasive racism, and changing economic structures. The first explanation suggests that individual African Americans have not taken advantage of the opportunities open to them; the second explanation posits that white discrimination has stood in the way of African- American progress; and the third explanation claims that new demands for high levels of skill have compounded the historic and contemporary educational disadvantages of many African Americans. None of these explanations is sufficient, Carnoy maintains, however, without the addition of politics, for it is politics that translates individual attitudes into public policies and that sets the normative rules that structure markets as well as conceptions of what is appropriate in terms of public entitlements.

Basing his argument on correlations he has discerned between national leadership and black educational and economic progress, Carnoy believes that the way people view race and class is, on the one hand, shaped by prevalent ideas and images, and, on the other, constitutive of public willingness to support policies and programs that will help lessen black disadvantage. Having come of age in the 1960s when racial justice and equality were widely shared and very compelling ideals, he is puzzled by the problems that continue to plague this nation. "Why, with my generation's once ardent commitment to building a just nation and our talent for making such significant changes in other aspects of life," Carnoy asked, "were we not able to overcome our own social problems?"[7] Combined with Massey and Denton's analysis of the problem of residential segregation, that question underscores the importance of studying past failures and suggests the urgency of considering what might be done to reenergize public commitment to equality and social justice for all Americans.

Two documents that exercised powerful influence on American aspirations earlier in this century may be instructive in this regard. The first is Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma and the second, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

Few books have framed public discourse as profoundly as An American Dilemma did. For fifty-one years, it has served as a standard point of reference in discussions of race and equality and it has also had a discernible impact on public policy.[8] Commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to inform its consideration of the feasibility of developing cultural and educational programs for African-American adults, An American Dilemma became a much larger, more broadly framed study than its sponsors had intended.[9] As Myrdal's daughter, Sissela Bok, has observed, this was because its Swedish economist author brought to it a keen interest in questions of values and objectivity and a lifelong commitment to developing the social sciences as means to practical social improvements.[10] In addition, as Gunnar Myrdal himself explained, the study's design reflected John Dewey's "conception of what a social problem really is."[11]

Agreeing with Dewey's argument in Freedom and Culture, which was published while Myrdal was working on An American Dilemma, Myrdal emphasized the moral aspects of racial problems. This meant that he tried to clarify the degree to which they were a result of individual and social choices. He also viewed such problems in terms of the impact of "culture" on "human nature," culture being defined as a continuous interaction among a great many variables--laws, customs, social and economic circumstances, history, and the arts among them.[12] In combination, these influences enabled Myrdal to produce a book that was richly complex in analysis and that spoke with a self-conscious (and self-consciously analyzed) moral grandeur that few, if any, subsequent works of social science have achieved. Though much else was also involved, no single attribute ever being sufficient to explain the impact of a book or idea, the power and forthrightness of Myrdal's appeal to the conscience of white America were essential factors in the book's capacity to shape public thinking about the kind of society the United States could and should be.

That a study that was expressly concerned with values and moral premises and their impact on actual behavior should have had such a wide and relatively long-lasting impact is not irrelevant to current problems of political will. In Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation, Alan Wolfe, a sociologist now at Boston University, makes the interesting observation that in modern societies once-standard guides to morality tend to lose their authority. Hungry for new alternative sources of guidance concerning how to live wisely and well, people look, Wolfe believes, not to "religion, philosophy, literature, or politics," but rather to the social sciences, where they can find moral theories as well as empirical data about how people think and behave. "As the Kinsey Reports first illustrated," he stated, "when all are interested in how others behave but few are secure that they are behaving correctly, social scientists are the closest we have to savants."[13]

Wolfe's point, buttressed by evidence attesting to the influence of An American Dilemma, may suggest that because they satisfy deeply felt needs for moral guidance, explicitly moral works of social science are likely to have a greater impact on public values and aspiration than works that are more neutral, detached, and "objective." If that is correct, the declining commitments to racial integration and equality that have been evident since the 1960s may, in some measure, be attributable to increasingly narrow-gauged and technical styles of social research as well as to less overtly action-oriented styles of social reporting than Myrdal relied on.

An American Dilemma carried a message concerning the wisdom, prudence, and possibility of purposeful progress toward racial equality. By reminding its readers that social situations are constructed and can be reconstructed, it powerfully affirmed the fact that wrongs can be righted. Hopefulness and efficacy were essential to the message it preached. The importance of combining those qualities has been sadly illuminated by recent politics, a message of hope having played a role in President Clinton's electoral success in 1992, and a lack of strong and consistent leadership having played a role in the public's repudiation of the Democratic party two years later. If there is to be a renewed effort to build a just society in the United States, discussions of current events will have to be charged with a seasoned but unstoppable determination to eradicate bias and discrimination. Finding multiple and varied ways to do that is one of the most significant challenges facing this society.

Another closely related challenge has to do with the public's faith in the public purposes of the public schools. If the Myrdal study shows the power of speaking directly and forcefully about matters of race and equality, Brown v. Board of Education illustrates how vital the American faith in education has been to social progress. Although the Brown decision was important most immediately because it established that segregated schools could not be equal schools and were therefore in violation of the laws of the United States, it was also important because it confirmed America's longstanding reliance on education as a means for addressing its most urgent social challenges. Just as education had been counted on in the seventeenth century to shield people from "that old Deluder, Satan," and then, in the eighteenth century, to teach the civic virtues that would enable the new Republic to survive, and thereafter also to teach the attitudes and skills necessary for productive work, so now was it being called on to open equal opportunity to black Americans.

Of course, there is much about the American reliance on education that is problematic. However powerful it may be, education is not a panacea, the American tendancy to treat it as such too often bespeaking a long- standing and deep distrust of the more directly intrusive powers of the state. That aside for the moment, by linking education to issues of race, Brown demonstrated the wisdom of the decision of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to attack segregation via challenges to segregated schooling and, in so doing, reaffirmed the centrality of education as an instrument of public policy, a strategy for planned change.

The American faith in education that was confirmed by Brown, and thereafter by some of the most important legislation of the Kennedy- Johnson War on Poverty, notably Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, seems frighteningly precarious today. Often forgetting the extraordinarily challenging context in which public schools now operate, commentators seem more likely to report school failures than school triumphs. Often confusing measures of operational efficiency with evidence of educational excellence, they tend to ignore the full range of purposes schools have traditionally been asked to pursue. Today it is frequently assumed that schools should be primarily concerned with enhancing the future vocational competence of their students. It is too rarely also asserted that they should be equally concerned with creating environments that teach children tolerance, cooperation, empathy, altruism, and all the other orientations needed to live peaceably and well in a complex, pluralistic world. Even where the institutional arrangements for schooling have not been privatized, public expectations concerning what schools should do are narrowing the potential contribution schools can make to public life.

Were there alternative institutions that could advance public agenda via educational means, this situation might not be so worrisome. But to my knowledge, no such institution exists. Some might venture that families could and should assume more responsibility for youth instruction and socialization. However, there is much to be said for preserving the private rights of families, including their right to transmit their own idiosyncratic beliefs, values, and behavioral preferences, and for pursuing common, non-familial agenda elsewhere. The political philosopher Bruce Ackerman once claimed that in a liberal society families should have a right to control the primary education of their children, including their earliest and most formative education in values, while the state should have a right to control their secondary education, which, by offering exposure to ideas different from their parents' ideas, would help them realize their own individuality.[14] Even though his argument would not be likely to win favor today, it does help to show that even though families serve crucial primary educational functions, they cannot and should not be seen as an alternative to public schools, which have traditionally been regarded as an effective and preferred means for advancing common social, economic, and political goals.

Without an alternative agency devoted to promoting the public's interest in having young people prepared to be responsible, productive, civically engaged, tolerant people, declining respect for public schools and declining support for their once broad, public missions will result in a diminished capacity to seek purposeful, planned social change. Even though too much has frequently been asked of public schools, they have served as a powerful, popular, and effective focus for public aspirations for a very long time. Clearly, therefore, if the United States is to fulfill its too often ambivalent and vacillating allegiance to racial justice and equality for all, public faith in the public schools, and especially in the public purposes of the public schools, will have to be restored. Doing that represents a challenge no less significant than finding ways to express the fact that bias and discrimination cannot be tolerated in the United States.

By focusing on Brown v. Board of Education, I hope this issue of the Teachers College Record will contribute in at least a small way to meeting both of these challenges. The articles gathered here were first presented as papers at a conference convened by LaMar P. Miller, director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University's School of Education. Subsequently, LaMar worked with me as guest editor of this issue, our purpose being to bring together essays that could illustrate not only the historic significance of Brown, but also the continuing promise and problems associated with its implementation.

Forty plus years after Brown, it is readily evident that desegregation will not easily or automatically produce integrated schools. It is also evident that integrated schools cannot alone produce an integrated society. The enforcement of residential desegregation, equity in hiring and promotion in the work place, and much else will also be required. However, as the research of my Teachers College colleague Robert Grain and others has shown, there is strong evidence indicating that people who have attended integrated schools are more likely to live and work in integrated settings.[15] Obviously, therefore, school integration can be instrumental to an integrated society. Although we have a very long way to go before the promise of such a society can be realized to the benefit of all people, the faith in education that was inherent in Brown was not misplaced. Reading about Brown can remind us of that. Perhaps it can even help us realize anew that contributing to the achievement of racial justice and equality is among the most important public purposes of the public schools.


1 Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994).

2 New York Times, 16 March 1995, pp. A1 and A22.

3 Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

4 Ibid., p. 8.

5 Ibid., p. 186.

6 Martin Carnoy, Faded Dreams: The Politics and Economics of Race in America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

7 Ibid., p. 1.

8 David W. Southern, Gunnar Myrdal and Black-White Relations: The Use and Abuse of "An American Dilemma," 1944-1969 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987).

9 Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy, and Public Policy (1989; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), chap 6.

10 Sissela Bok, "Introductory Remarks," October 1994 conference on An American Dilemma, subsequently published in Daedalus, Winter 1995, pp. 1- 13.

11 Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (New York: Harper & Row, 1944), p. xlvii. A new addition will be published by Transaction Press in the fall of 1995.

12 The depth of Myrdal's indebtedness to Dewey is readily evident when one juxtaposes An American Dilemma with John Dewey, Freedom and Culture (1939), in The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 13: 1938-1939, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), pp. 63-188. See also Walter A. Jackson, Gunnar Myrdal and Americas Conscious: Social Engineering and Racial Liberalism, 1938-87 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), pp. 105-06.

13 Alan Wolfe, Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 6, 7.

14 Bruce A. Ackerman, Social Justice in the Liberal State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), chap. 5.

15 Much of this research is summarized in Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Grain, "Perpetuation Theory and the Long-Term Effects of School Desegregation," Review of Educational Research 64 (Winter 1994): 531-55. See also James M. McPartland and Jomills Henry Braddock, "Going to College and Getting a Good Job: The Impact of Desegregation," in Effective School Desegregation: Equality, Quality, and Feasibility, ed. W. D. Hawley (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1981); and Jennifer Hochschild, The New American Dilemma: Liberal Democracy and School Desegregation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 4, 1995, p. 601-607
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3, Date Accessed: 7/29/2021 2:46:28 PM

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  • Ellen Lagemann
    Teachers College, Columbia University

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