The Idiocy of Race

By Hannaford, Ivan | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

The Idiocy of Race


Hannaford, Ivan, The Wilson Quarterly


The Greeks referred to those who lived outside the realm of public life and politics as idiot - i[delta]i[omega][tau][alpha]i. In our unthinking acceptance of the idea of race, whose birth and development Ivan Hannaford here chronicles, we in the modern age may be guilty of a kind of collective idiocy. Genuine public life - not to mention a genuine solution to racial problem - becomes impossible when a society allows race or ethnicity to displace citizenship as one's badge of identity.

Fifty years have passed since Gunnar Myrdal published An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), a classic work that still defines - and constrains - American thinking about race and politics. When the Carnegie Corporation commissioned the Swedish economist to analyze "the Negro problem," the United States was looking with uncertainty toward the end of World War II. Especially among liberals, unease over the possible return of economic depression mingled with alarm over the success in a depressed Germany of Hitler's racist ideology - with consequences whose terrible dimensions were by the early 1940s beginning to come clear. Myrdal was chosen from among a host of worthy contenders in part because he was an outsider; his homeland was assumed to have no history of imperialism, and it was thought that he would bring enough academic detachment to the subject to mobilize the considerable expertise then available in the social-science faculties of America's leading universities. At these institutions, "race relations" had established itself, along with human relations and industrial relations, as a new and popular discipline during the 1920s and 1930s, even though few of its practitioners had ventured into the public realm.

The Carnegie Corporation was not to be dissapointed.

Myrdal dutifully consulted with such great names of the academy as Ralph J. Bunche (who accompanied him on his dangerous travels into the South), Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, Melville Herskovits, Otto Kleineburg, Robert Linton, Robert Ezra Park, Edward Reuter, Louis Wirth, Ashley Montagu Edward Shils, and Arnold Rose. With the additional help of more than 30 research assistants, he produced a manual for the eradication of racism in the United States.

Myrdal began by examining the ideas and mental constructs of ordinary people, not of intellectuals, historians, or political philosophers - an odd choice, in view of the considerable racial mischief the latter group had been up to for more than a century. 'In a sense and to a degree present conditions and trends can be analyzed without consideration of their antecedents," Myrdal declared. His study was, he said, an analysis of morals, not an analysis in morals; not a historical description so much as an analytical prescription for future social and political action. Its aim was scientific investigation, purged of all possible bias so that a logical foundation could be laid for practical and political conclusions. The hope was that change, driven by education, and linked to social action in jobs and housing, would eliminate prejudice, reduce the practice of stereotyping, remove the causes of aggression and frustration, and create a sense of identity among those living anomic and unproductive lives. This was the social-engineering approach par excellence.

The Myrdal Report not only set the standard for public policy in the United States but also influenced the United Nations in the early 1950s (and later the British, who blithely transported the model across the Atlantic in the 1960s to deal with their "local difficulty" of immigration from the West Indies and Asia). There was a great fear that the eugenic principles and practices adopted throughout the developed world between 1904 and 1935, and implemented with such horrible effectiveness by the Nazis, might spread to the emerging countries of the underdeveloped world. If that were to happen, all that could be expected in the long run was continuous war between innumerable ethnic and racial groups. …

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