“So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds,” proclaimed Barack Obama in January from the pulpit at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, in a speech marking the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Obama’s high-minded words echo those of Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, whose 1944 book An American Dilemma still defines the basic dynamics of racial politics in America. In a lengthy italicized passage in his introduction, Myrdal provided the essence of his argument for readers who did not want to slog through its 1,483 data-laden pages: “The American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American. It is there that the interracial tension has its focus. It is there that the decisive struggle goes on.” For its unflinching accounts of patterns of segregation, the rhetoric and practice of Jim Crow, and pervasive racial violence, Myrdal’s book is indispensable. But the book’s longest-lived contribution was its argument–one that resonated with American religious and therapeutic culture–that racial inequality was fundamentally a moral and psychological problem that would be resolved only when Americans’ hearts and minds were untainted by prejudice.
Myrdal had many detractors, most of them on the left. Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker criticized him for downplaying the long history of black resistance to inequality. Oliver Cromwell Cox, the West Indian-born sociologist whose brilliant but mostly neglected book Caste, Class, and Race was published just a few years after An American Dilemma, took Myrdal to task for downplaying the connection between race and economic exploitation. Cox singled out Myrdal’s “mystical” belief that changing individual attitudes would end the “exploitation” at the heart of racial inequality. “In the end,” wrote Cox, “the social system is exculpated.” Myrdal’s critics grew more numerous in the 1960s. In their 1968 manifesto Black Power, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton offered their own challenge to individualistic understandings of race relations and coined the term “institutional racism” to account for the ways that racial inequality was not solely or even primarily a matter of beliefs or attitudes. They pinpointed “conditions of poverty and discrimination” rooted in unequal relationships of power and privilege, like the healthcare system that failed urban blacks and that “destroyed and maimed” lives every bit as effectively as the actions of the most brutal individual racists.
Aptheker, Cox, Carmichael and Hamilton were swimming against strong political and cultural currents. Most Americans now, as then–black and white, leftist, liberal or conservative–take for granted that racial inequality is predominantly a problem of hearts and minds, of bad attitudes, deeply felt prejudices, irrational thinking, intolerance and immorality. They aren’t wholly wrong. Forty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., overt racism (Klan marches, Denny’s restaurants rebuffing black customers and noose-laden trees in Jena, Louisiana) still plagues America. But hooded Klansmen, bigoted waitresses and perverted youth who romanticize lynching (of which there are still all too many) are not the prime causes of racial inequality in America today. Nor are the many whites who still trade in vile stereotypes of blacks.
The obsession with individual culpability has created an impasse in our thinking about race, right down to the widely used misnomers “postracial” and “post-civil rights era.” Explaining racial inequality in America–especially the most enduring form of it, that between blacks and whites–flummoxes even those most devoted to analyzing and eradicating it. How do we make sense out of a country where racial inequality is deeply entrenched but where racism is seldom overt? How can we square evidence of racial progress with the grim reality of persistent racialized poverty, unemployment, health and wealth gaps and educational disparities?