Documentaries

How America Ignores Its Appalling History of Racism

A classic study on American race relations is the subject of a new documentary.

Photo Credit: IndependentLens

In 1944, Nobel Laureate Gunnar Myrdal conducted a highly controversial study on race, titled "An American Dilemma." Now his research is the focus of an equally provocative Independent Lens documentary on PBS. 

Llewellyn Smith's American Denial examines Myrdal's study through archival footage, newsreels, nightly news reports, research footage and rare home movies to explain why psychological testing of racial attitudes has remained virtually unchanged over the course of decades.

Smith and co-director Christine Herbes-Sommers wanted to find out if the way Americans talk about race really reflects what people believe. 

"Myrdal identified a key and troubling question: how can a nation that espouses such forward-thinking human and democratic vision as embodied in the American creed, justify the exploitation of its black population?" Herbes-Sommers asked

The trustees of the Carnegie Corporation of New York tasked Myrdal with conducting "a comprehensive study of the Negro in the United States, to be undertaken in a wholly objective and dispassionate way as a social phenomenon." 

To do so, he traveled to the deep south, approaching residents with his unique perspective. 

"I'm from Sweden and we don't have black people there," Myrdal said. "Tell me what they're like."

"We knew Myrdal’s question would be salient today," said Herbes-Sommers. "So we set out to explore the mechanisms of denial, or cognitive dissonance — the ways in which we deny or rationalize biases and practices that violate our bedrock beliefs — as well as the terrible historic and contemporary consequences of that denial," she explained.

Myrdal's study rose to prominence in the 1940s and was eventually referenced in footnote 11 in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Chief Justice Earl Warren cited five works, including "An American Dilemma," to back his claim that segregation inflicted psychological harm on black schoolchildren. 

"Anything that obscures the fundamentally moral nature of the social problem is harmful, no matter whether it proceeds from the side of physical or of psychological theory," Myrdal cautioned presciently.

Smith and Herbes-Sommers' film streams on PBS through March 19. 

Watch American Denial:

Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.

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