Independent Lens: American Denial

(Rochester, NY) – In 1938, the Carnegie Corporation commissioned Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal to begin his landmark study of race and inequality in the United States. His question: How could a people who cherish freedom and fairness also create such a racially oppressive society? Published in 1944, “An American Dilemma” was cited in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate America’s schools. Seventy years later, Myrdal’s question continues to challenge America – how do we explain the disconnect between what we believe and what we practice in what some have called a “post-racial” America? American Denial juxtaposes past and present, shifting from Myrdal’s investigation –- and his own personal struggle with denial — and current stories of racial injustice that are often overlooked in our national insistence on the preeminence of the ideals of liberty, justice, and equality. Directed by Llewellyn Smith and produced by Christine Herbes-Sommers, Smith, and Kelly Thomson, American Denial, an Independent Lens presentation airs Monday, February 23, 2015 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV.

An intellectual social visionary who later won a Nobel Prize in economics, Myrdal first visited the Jim Crow South at the invitation of Carnegie Corporation in 1938, where he was “shocked to the core by all the evils I saw.” With a team of scholars that included black political scientist Ralph Bunche, Myrdal wrote a massive 1500-page investigation of race he called “An American Dilemma.” His study, now a considered a classic, challenged the veracity of the American Creed of equality, justice, and liberty for all by arguing that critically implicit in the Creed — which Myrdal called America’s “state religion” — was a nefarious conflict: the way for white Americans to explain to themselves why black Americans could not succeed in a nation offering equal opportunity was to view blacks as inferior. Myrdal argued that this view justified practices and policies that openly undermined and oppressed the lives of black citizens. But are we still a society living in this state of denial seventy years later, in an era marked by the election of the first black president.

American Denial sheds a unique light on the unconscious political and moral world of modern Americans.  Archival footage, newsreels, nightly news reports, and rare southern home movies from the 30s and 40s thread through the story, as well as footage showing the surprising results of psychological tests of racial attitudes. Exploring “stop and frisk” practices, the incarceration crisis, and racially-patterned crime and poverty, the film features a wide array of historians, psychologists, and sociologists who offer expert insight and share their own personal, unsettling stories. The result is a unique and provocative film that challenges our assumptions about who we are and what we really believe.

Pictured: Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1947
Credit: Courtesy of Gordon Parks 



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