“Negroes want the social scientist to address the white community and ‘tell it like it is.’ White America has an appalling lack of knowledge concerning the reality of Negro life. One reason some advances were made in the South during the past decade was the discovery by Northern whites of the brutal facts of Southern segregated life. It was the Negro who educated the nation by dramatizing the evils through nonviolent protest. The social scientist played little or no role in disclosing truth. The Negro action movement with raw courage did it virtually alone…These partial advances were, however, limited principally to the South and progress did not automatically spread throughout the nation. There was also little depth to the changes.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to the American Psychological Association, 1967 (emphasis added)
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s searing critique of social science is useful for highlighting an intertwined set of problematics that runs through Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: first, its silence around the systemic racism that existed throughout the country, not just in the South; second, the ways it ignores the role of Northern liberalism in maintaining racial inequity, particularly at home; and finally, the sociological “culture of poverty” formulation that provided a more palatable veneer for Northern opposition to reform, deeming Black community life as characterized by “social pathology,” as Myrdal calls it. In An American Dilemma, Myrdal casts the problem of racism as a Southern one. As he later confessed, he substantially ignored evidence of structural inequality from the Northeast to the West; Myrdal grossly missed how resistant to change white Northerners were at home and how they used cultural discourses (which Myrdal employed as well) to justify it.1Karen Miller documents how “color-blind” discourses originated in the early twentieth century among Northern white political leaders eager to distinguish their municipal leadership as modern and progressive, maintain segregationist urban structures, and deflect Black demands for change. Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
Key to Myrdal’s framing of the problem of racism was the “vicious circle”—racial discrimination produced Black “social pathology,” which then justified further racial discrimination. In other words, central to how Myrdal cast the problem of racism in the United States were the “peculiarities of the Negro community [that] could be characterized as social pathology.”2Nikhil Pal Singh zeroes in on Myrdal’s tendency to “inscrib[e] racism as a negative “effect” that was primarily manifested in Black individual and communal behavior.” Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 145–146. Emblematic of Northern liberal understandings of race in the post–World War II United States, the social pathology of the Black community thesis allowed Northern liberals to criticize Southern racism and push for change there, while at the same time protecting segregated structures at home. They were invested in distinguishing their opposition to serious reform as not segregationist like their Southern counterparts, defending Northern inequality through cultural explanations that framed community “pathology” as the driving factor for Black educational underattainment, housing inequality, and underemployment.3E. Franklin Frazier, Gunnar Myrdal, and Oscar Lewis were early proponents of such cultural explanations. See Gaston Alonso, “Culture Trap,” in Our Schools Suck: Students Talk to a Segregated Nation on the Failures of Urban Education, ed. Jeanne Theoharis et al. (New York: NYU Press, 2009). I want to focus on this particular blindness in Myrdal and contemporaneous social scientists, as well as the ways King challenged such thinking. Deeply critical of US social science and of cultural explanations for Black urban poverty, King disputed the idea of “social pathology” that dominates An American Dilemma.4To be clear, I am not saying that King specifically highlighted this aspect in An American Dilemma, just this prevalent framing among social scientists and liberals more generally.
Challenging the pathology theory and the racism it masked
Black activists in Northern cities—along with Martin Luther King Jr.—called out the racial hypocrisies of Northern liberalism and the pervasive systemic racial injustice in the North. Indeed, King zeroed in on the limits of Northern liberalism since the beginnings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and their work across the South. He joined with movements from Los Angeles to New York to highlight school segregation, educational inequality, housing inequality, job exclusion, and police brutality. And, over and over they were met with resistance from politicians, local citizens, and a national news media who denied the problem, acted surprised at Black anger, demonized Black activists, and framed the problem as “social pathology” and “cultural deprivation” (that could only be remedied by correcting Black culture and values).
King saw the hypocrisy in many white Northerners’ willingness to target racial problems in the South while maintaining inequality and injustice at home. He took issue with the false discourses of “culture,” “crime,” and “law and order” that had become Northern justifications for segregation, inequality, and increased policing in their own cities. And he insisted that the story did not begin with the riots of the mid-1960s, as the media and political officials suggested (and historians have repeated), but with the long history of injustice and frustrated Black struggle in the North that preceded it.“Time and again, King would confront the structures of racism in the North, decrying the prevalent focus on Black culture.”
In his address to the Religious Leaders Conference in 1959, King called out the employment discrimination “shamefully widespread in the North, particularly in great urban communities which often pride themselves as liberal and progressive centers in government and economics.”5Martin Luther King Jr., “Address at the Religious Leaders Conference,” May 11, 1959. One of the themes he returned to again and again was how Northerners ignored and protected inequality while claiming to be liberal and progressive. In a 1960 speech to an interracial audience of the Urban League, he identified “a pressing need for a liberalism in the North that is truly liberal, that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the deep South … who not only rises up with righteous indignation when a Negro is lynched in Mississippi, but will be equally incensed when a Negro is denied the right to live in his neighborhood… or secure a top position in his business.” Time and again, King would confront the structures of racism in the North, decrying the prevalent focus on Black culture.
Key to the justification and maintenance of segregation, racial inequality, and a growing carceral regime from the mid-twentieth century on in the North was a discourse seemingly steeped in the objectivity of social science. These academic theories posited the dysfunctional cultural adaptations Black people had developed as key to existing social and economic inequities. The need to address “cultural deprivation” or “social pathology,” as it was often termed in the 1950s and 1960s, provided a way for political officials and Northern whites to deflect movements for racial equality by saying that the most important task was to change the behaviors and values of Black people themselves. Across the 1950s and 1960s, from Los Angeles to Chicago to Boston, Black parents and community leaders built movements challenging school segregation and educational inequality, housing inequality, and job exclusion. They were met with politicians who favored solutions to remediate “cultural deprivation” and address “ghetto” pathologies, as well as increase funding to remedy “juvenile delinquency.”
With public support of racial segregation and discrimination viewed as the distasteful purview of Southern racists, “cultural deprivation” explanations provided a socially acceptable rhetoric to harness many Northern whites’ virulent opposition to housing, school, and job desegregation and blame Black people for their own situation in the “neutral” language of social science. With biological arguments discredited after World War II, culture became the way to talk about race, in part aided through the rise of academic social science,6Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001More Info → with “culture of poverty” arguments gaining ascendancy in the mid-twentieth century. While many scholars portrayed these cultural adaptations in the context of systemic discrimination, poverty, and disfranchisement, they still depicted a dysfunctional culture holding Black people back.7See Alonso, “Culture Trap.”
Such “cultural” arguments developed a powerful grip on Northern citizens, journalists, scholars, and policymakers. While acknowledging inequality, they posited the greatest barriers Blacks now faced stemmed from their own behaviors, family structures, and cultural norms. Black behavior, not the social systems of racism and racist Northerners, became the focus for change.8The national media, based largely in the North, maintained the mythologies that justified the Jim Crow North. By the 1960s, national news outlets had turned their attention to racism and struggle in the South. At the same time, they promoted ideologies of Black people in the North as criminal and pathological and devoted much of their attention to in-depth stories plumbing life in the “ghetto.” See Jeanne Theoharis, “Beyond the Redneck: Polite Racism and the ‘White Moderate,’” chap. 3 in A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018), 83–99; and “The Media Was Often an Obstacle to the Struggle for Racial Justice,” chap. 4 in A More Beautiful and Terrible History, 100–122. “Culture of poverty” framings thus necessitated strategies to address “juvenile delinquency,” teach good work habits, strengthen values for work and education, and support family values—rather than desegregation, which, they claimed, wouldn’t address the real problem. And, if these didn’t work, more punitive approaches were needed.
King in the North
While King is often depicted as shifting his attention to the North only after the Watts uprising in 1965, in reality, he crisscrossed the North since the early 1960s not only to draw support for the SCLC’s work in the South but to join with Northern struggles fighting school and housing segregation, job exclusion, and police brutality.“King was nearly run out of town when he dared to suggest the city would benefit from a Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the police department.”
Following the police killing of 15-year-old James Powell in Harlem in June 1964 and the uprising it sparked, King called for “an honest, soul-searching analysis and evaluation of the environmental causes which have spawned the riots.” Afterwards, New York mayor Robert Wagner Jr. invited King to visit the city. But King was nearly run out of town when he dared to suggest the city would benefit from a Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the police department.9Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), 111. When he challenged similar injustices in Boston, the same happened.
King made multiple trips to Boston in the early 1960s to join a burgeoning movement for school desegregation in the city. But, when he met with Boston’s School Committee in 1964 (who maintained Boston did not have “problem schools just problem students”) to urge desegregation, the meeting turned into a “disaster,” according to organizer Ellen Jackson, and was shut down quickly.10“Interview with Ellen Jackson,” in Black Women Oral History Project, ed. Ruth Hill, 145–146. King thus was familiar with Northern proclivities to blame Black behavior and to reject structural change when it was demanded.
Similarly, in the early 1960s King made a number of trips to Los Angeles where he highlighted “[school] segregation and discrimination…and police brutality.”11Marnesba Tackett, interview by Michael Balter, 1988, Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Special Collections. Shortly after getting out of a Birmingham jail in May 1963, King returned to Los Angeles and spoke to crowd of more than thirty-five thousand people at Wrigley Field. “You asked me what Los Angeles can do to help us in Birmingham,” he told the audience. “The most important thing that you can do is to set Los Angeles free because you have segregation and discrimination here, and police brutality.”12Tackett interview; “Greatest Freedom Rally Here Nets Heroes Over $75,000,” Los Angeles Sentinel, May 30, 1963. King knew of the growing movement in the city around police brutality—a united front struggle that had escalated after the police killing of Nation of Islam secretary Ronald Stokes in 1962. Yet, police and city leadership were intransigent, blaming Black Angelenos for the problem.
King came to Los Angeles multiple times in 1964 to campaign against Proposition 14—a move by developers and citizens to block the state’s newly passed Rumford Fair Housing Act—saying its passage would be “one of the most shameful developments in our nation’s history.”13“Housing Foes Picket King, CRB Banquet,” California Eagle, February 20, 1964. In November, California “voted for ghettos” as King put it14Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond the Los Angeles Riots: Next Step, the North,” Saturday Review, November 13, 1965, 33–35, 105.—the proposition passing by a two-to-one margin (with 3 out of 4 white voters supporting it)—even as Californians voted by similar margin to return Lyndon Johnson to the White House. The message was stark: civil rights were good, as long as they didn’t come home to California.“King took to the pages of the Saturday Review in November 1965 to criticize Northern surprise at the uprising. He refused the pathologizing view of Black Angelenos.”
Media coverage of King’s criticism of Northern structural racism was dismissive, if it was covered at all. However, following the Watts uprising, reporters descended on King for his comments. In other words, King was highlighting Northern racial injustice long before these events, but reporters often reported it as new after these uprisings. King took to the pages of the Saturday Review in November 1965 to criticize Northern surprise at the uprising. He refused the pathologizing view of Black Angelenos. He highlighted Black grievances in California long ignored, the impact of Proposition 14, and the differential outrage around police brutality between the South and North: “As the nation, Negro and white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South, police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated, and usually denied.”15King, “Beyond the Los Angeles Riots.”
Social science “social pathology” theories rebuked
A sociologist at heart (King had majored in sociology at Morehouse), King increasingly zeroed in on the role problematic sociological arguments played for Northern liberals to deflect from school and housing segregation, job exclusion, and police brutality. “Many whites who oppose open housing would deny that they are racists. They turn to sociological arguments … [without realizing] that criminal responses are environmental, not racial.”16Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 118–119. Upending the idea of the criminal, King reframed the question by highlighting white illegality that produced Northern ghettos: “When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out …he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services.”17Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement,” American Psychological Association, September 1967. Full text of this speech can be found on the APA website. In other words, King took issue with liberal approaches to inequality, advanced by social scientists, journalists, city leaders, and white residents, which focused on Black people and their “cultural responses,” rather than policies and actions by white citizens and officials that sustained racial injustice.
In 1967, King delivered a scathing address to the American Psychological Association on how US social science, which by the mid-1960s was quite secure in its liberalness, had fallen down on the job: “All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life,” King observed, “but with the product of these conditions—the Negro himself.” US social science had done little to expose those conditions, to expose “the truth,” particularly in the North. King challenged the ways social scientists and journalists focused on Black people and their “cultural responses”—as Myrdal had—not on policies and actions by white citizens and officials that sustained and supported racial injustice. King continued, “The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society…The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society.”18King, “Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement.”
King faulted the “white majority…[for] producing chaos” while blaming the chaos on Black people and claiming if they behaved better, success would come. Taking issue with dominant social scientific approaches to the race problem, which excused racial injustice by blaming Black culture, King insisted that white criminality and the criminality of the state was actually what bore investigating. Foregrounding this aspect of King’s thought, then, helps us see clearly one of the most problematic aspects of An American Dilemma—a refusal to see the structures of inequality rife throughout the North and the role social science played in excusing and maintaining them through the more palatable but no less damaging veneer of culture.