In An American Dilemma (1944), the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal argued in favor of black Americans’ assimilation and integration into dominant white American society and further explained that nation-wide policies supporting integration and assimilation would prove Americans’ democratic nature. Soon after its publication, this two-volume study became central to national race discussions. Most famously, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) cited Myrdal’s work in order to justify its holding that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional.4 It was the Brown decision and the subsequent school integration movement that the German-American political theorist, Hannah Arendt, criticized in “Reflections on Little Rock”; an article published by Dissent magazine in 1959. Here, she offered a list of arguments explaining why the federal government’s efforts to integrate segregated schools in the Southern U.S. were unjustified. Directly criticizing a federal program that was close to the hearts and minds of many Americans (including Dissent readers), Arendt’s essay found few fans.
Taking a step back from mid-twentieth century receptions of An American Dilemma and “Reflections on Little Rock,” this talk will help clarify why these two European scholars arrived at such distinct views on American race relations. Specifically, I argue that Myrdal’s and Arendt’s different visions of American democracy led them to their opposing perspectives on American race relations. In 1942, Myrdal was particularly intent on illustrating that the American democratic state and its people—unlike Nazi Germany and its citizens—followed modern social scientific knowledge on social group differences and thus promoted subordinate groups’ assimilation and integration into the dominant majority folk. In 1959, Arendt was adamant that American democracy should prove itself distinct from totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and a communist Soviet Union by maintaining a strong separation between the private, public, and social realms and between adults and children. Reading An American Dilemma and “Reflections on Little Rock” through this lens, we begin to appreciate the significance of democratic theory in determining—not only Myrdal’s and Arendt’s, but also our own—definitions of racial equality in the United States.

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