Laying the Intellectual Foundation for Racial Equality

In 1935, the board of the Carnegie Corporation expressed interest in “Negro problems” in the United States, and the extent to which they could be reduced through education. This led to a decision to commission a study of the issue. For reasons of objectivity, the foundation sought a European scholar to conduct the work, settling in 1936 on Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, who had spent 1929 and 1930 in the U.S. as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, and who later went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics. The Carnegie Corporation arranged a two-month tour of the South for Myrdal, guided by a knowledgeable official of Rockefeller’s General Education Board. They gave Myrdal $300,000 of funding, with which he commissioned 40 research memoranda from experts on different aspects of race issues. Beyond this, the foundation gave Myrdal wide latitude for his investigation.

Drawing from the research papers and his own observations during his Southern tour, Myrdal wrote a 1,500-page book called An American Dilemma, which the Carnegie Corporation published in 1944. The book took a basically positive view of the potential of black Americans and the ability of U.S. society to transform itself to accommodate them as productive and equal citizens, and strongly influenced the public view of race relations.

The book sold over 100,000 copies, and its second edition published in 1965 influenced the civil-rights legislation of that time. The study was cited in five different Supreme Court opinions, including the Brown v. Board of Education case that ushered in full racial integration.

See “1936— Laying the Intellectual Foundation for Racial Equality” in the list of Major Achievements in Public-Policy Reform of The Almanac of American Philanthropy for this and other donor accomplishments.