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 funds to commission 40 research memoranda from experts in different aspects of race issues. Beyond this, the foundation gave Myrdal wide latitude for his investigation.

Drawing from the 40 research papers and his own observations during his southern tour, Myrdal wrote a 1,500 page book called An American Dilemma that 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. It sold over 100,000 copies, and its second edition published in 1965 influenced the civil rights activism 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.

  • Joel Fleishman, The Foundation (PublicAffairs 2009) pp. 176-179