Monday, February 23, 2015
"American Denial": PBS Independent Lens film tracks the work on race by Gunnar Myrdal
Monday night PBS stations aired “American Denial: The Roots of Racism”, 50 minutes, directed by Llewellyn W. Smith, as part of its “Independent Lens” independent documentary film series. The film gives the history of Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal and his visit to the United States, starting in 1938, at the behest of Carnegie, to study race. The end result was eventually the book “The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” in 1944.
Myrdal was shocked when he visited black neighborhoods, and learned one could not understand behavior until willing to walk in their shoes. Myrdal had originally focused on Jim Crow laws and segregation, and did encounter the stories of lynching (as with the unfinished film “American Lynching” of Gode Davis). But he found that individual Americans, both black and white,
personalized anti-black prejudice long after they renounced discrimination intellectually. Well into the 60s, Blacks traveling in the South could not find black hotels and had to stay with other families.
One of the tools to measure inherent prejudice was the Implicit Association Test, where people were asked to correlate works with positive connotations with blacks and found it hard to do so. Blacks would underperform on academic tests where they were told that the tests “count”.
Myrdal’s book would be cited in the Supreme Court’s “Brown v. Board of Education” decision in 1954. Myrdal would live until 1987, 33 years to the date of the decision.
Myrdal’s wife was also accomplished, as they worked together. But Myrdal was capable of male chauvinism, and his wife Alva complained that he hindered her own career. Again, people could profess one thing publicly and behave differently privately. We call that hypocrisy. Myrtdal became troubled about the crisis that this work produced within his own personality.
Myrdal also drew parallels between racism in the US and the anti-Semitism that had exploded in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
The official site link is here.
The film was presented as part of Black History Month.