“The American dilemma is far from resolved”
15 June 2020
The police violence in Minneapolis that resulted in the death of George Floyd has once again thrust relations between black and white Americans onto the agenda, a dilemma that will most likely play a central role in this autumn’s presidential election, writes Dag Blanck, Professor of North American Studies at Uppsala University.
The American presidential election has been turned upside down during the spring. When the first primary elections were held in February, among the Democrats there were over 20 challengers to President Trump, and we heard a lot of talk about Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. President Trump had raised a large amount funds for his campaign and benefited from a strong economy and the fact that he was a sitting president.
Today, over 110,000 Americans have died in the coronavirus epidemic and the American economy is in freefall with unemployment at around 13 per cent. If that wasn’t enough, the eternal question of relations between black and white Americans has been thrust to the forefront after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police on 25 May in Minneapolis. The massive protests and the president’s reactions have once again pushed this central American issue to the fore.
Relations between the two groups have always been a central issue in the United States. Gunnar Myrdal described them in an influential book from 1944 as “The American Dilemma”. The famous and centrally important Declaration of Independence from 1776 proclaims “all men are created equal” while at the same time many of the American revolutionaries, including the author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners. The White House, one of the best-known symbols of the United States, was built by slaves.
Can the American dilemma be resolved? Will or is it even possible for the situation for black Americans to improve? There are two ways to see the question, one optimistic and one pessimistic. Gunnar Myrdal described in detail the discrimination and racism that the black population lived under in the United States. Though he painted a dark picture, Myrdal was optimistic when it came to the future. His dilemma was about the relations between the American ideal and social reality. When the differences between ideal and reality became too great, argued Myrdal, the inherit tension in the dilemma would force its resolution, and the American ideal would triumph.
On election night in 2008, as Barack Obama stood there as the victor of the presidential race, many felt that a decisive turning point had been reached. It was long unimaginable that a black man would become president of the United States, and the images from the celebrations in Grant Park in Chicago with Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey with tears running down their cheeks quickly became symbols of a new era. Did Obama’s victory mean that the United States had entered a new phase where race relations were less important? Was the country in what some researchers called a “post racial” era?
Obama himself, in one of his best speeches on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in March 2015, emphasised that even if many problems remain, major progress had been made. He argued that the situation for African Americans has improved and can continue to do so, and this struggle is an important part of American history and what it means to be American.
Eighteen months after that speech in Selma, Donald Trump won the presidential election and became Barack Obama’s successor. Trump had a much darker view of immigration and minorities, and his support was concentrated to the white population. Over the years, he has been involved in many controversies with racial overtones, even before he became a politician. He also based much of his candidacy on challenging Obama’s legitimacy as president by claiming he was born in Africa instead of the United States, something that was obviously false. The economic and social differences between black and white Americans are also significant. Incomes among African Americans are about 60 per cent those of whites, and unemployment is often double as high among blacks as whites.
Observers with a more pessimistic view argue that racism in the United States is structural, practically intrinsic to American society. They say that the ability to change is limited and that the post racial society is a distant dream. The police violence in Minneapolis last week, which brings to mind so many similar events of the last few years, and the continued economic and social inequalities of the country certainly support the darker view of race relations in the United States. On the other hand, the violent reactions among both blacks and whites show a strong counterforce in American society and that the American ideal still has an important role to play. The American dilemma is far from resolved, and we can expect that relations between black and white Americans will continue to play a major role in this autumn’s election.
Professor of North American Studies
For more information
New thesis: Finery for fashionable ladies
11 maj 2021
When the first descriptions of knitting and crochet were published in Swedish, in the mid-19th century, such handiwork was described as the finest of all feminine handicrafts, for the benefit and pleasure alike of the trend-conscious, diligent mid...
Linnaeus’ complicated relationship with racism
07 maj 2021
Since June 2020, Carl Linnaeus has been a subject of debate in Sweden and around the world. What sparked it off were the actions of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Statues of slave owners have been lambasted or destroyed. In Sweden, the dis...
Conspiracy theories characterise views in and about Europe
03 maj 2021
Conspiratorial narratives of internal disintegration and external threats affect views in the European Union and Europe to an increasing extent. Our trust in society is put to the test in crises such as COVID-19 when various groups are singled out...
Nordic conspiracy theories through the ages
01 mars 2021
Conspiracy theories are becoming more common in the world, and the Nordic countries are no exception. Are some conspiracy theories unique to the Nordic countries? What typical narratives are disseminated? And when did this really start? A new book...
The plague year of 1710 was also a difficult year
24 februari 2021
As historians, it is our job to take a step back and give perspective to our current situation. For anyone looking back, it isn’t hard to find other difficult years. In Sweden’s past, 1710 was undoubtedly one such year, writes Jonas Lindström, res...
Sustainable development the focus of new graduate school at Campus Gotland
21 januari 2021
On 18 January, Uppsala University’s new multidisciplinary graduate school opened at Campus Gotland. Its focus is on sustainable development. This involves research on key societal challenges within changing energy systems, sustainable consumption,...
Archives crucial for Freemasons’ identity
22 december 2020
The Order of Freemasons’ meticulous archives are fundamental to their identity. The unique structure of the masonic archives reinforces the secrecy and mystique of the self-image that has been fashioned by the Order — and characterises it in the e...
Grants for research on the impact of AI on people and society
15 december 2020
In a major 10-year national research programme, two Wallenberg Foundations are supporting research on the impact of the ongoing technology shift, involving digitalisation and artificial intelligence, on our society and our behaviour. Two of the gr...
Linnaeus and Rudbeck medallists chosen
10 december 2020
This year the Rudbeck Medal is awarded to Professors Olle Eriksson, Inger Sundström Poromaa and Maria Ågren, while the Linnaeus Medal is awarded to Professor Kerstin Lindblad Toh and Chairman Dai-Won Yoon at Hallym University in South Korea.
Turkic cultural heritage in Uppsala
07 december 2020
Uppsala University has a rich collection of manuscripts, printed material, art objects and maps related to the Ottoman Empire and other Turkic cultures. How did they come to Uppsala? This story is told in a new book “Turcologica Upsaliensia. An Il...
Fallen in battle, these Swedish Vikings are part of a larger genetic puzzle
17 september 2020
In a recently published article in the journal Nature, 90 researchers from various countries have collaborated to develop new knowledge about the Viking-era population. Marie Allen, professor of forensic genetics at Uppsala University, has contrib...
The VR game that takes you to medieval Visby
14 augusti 2020
Using a VR helmet, you can try your hand at archery in 14th century Visby. This new VR game has been developed by the game company Disir, which was founded by a game developer and three archaeologists, of which two research at Uppsala University.
“The American dilemma is far from resolved”
15 juni 2020
The police violence in Minneapolis that resulted in the death of George Floyd has once again thrust relations between black and white Americans onto the agenda, a dilemma that will most likely play a central role in this autumn’s presidential elec...
Social graces and etiquette vital for Carl Linnaeus
04 juni 2020
What would have become of Carl Linnaeus if he had remained single? Would science have missed out on one of its major lodestars without his well-functioning household? And was his son, Carl Linnaeus the Younger, really the ne’er-do-well he was repu...
Medieval manuscript fragments acquired
26 maj 2020
A group of fragments of medieval manuscripts has been acquired by Uppsala University Library. Among these there is a fragment related to Saint Bridget of Sweden. This particular fragment may have been written at or owned by the Vadstena Abbey.
She studies AI as existential media
30 april 2020
How are we influenced when smart digital assistants, like Siri and Alexa, become part of our homes? And what happens when we begin to track deviating individuals through biometrics? “More research is needed on what it means to be human in a digita...
New study reveals unknown side of Astrid Lindgren’s creative process
21 februari 2020
Why did Jonathan Lionheart’s pitch-black hair suddenly turn golden? And how did Master Detective Kalle Blomqvist get his proper name? In the “Astrid Lindgren Code”, literature researcher Malin Nauwerck lifts the lid on some of the literary world’s...
History professor given prestigious assignment
22 januari 2020
Maria Ågren, professor of history, has been awarded a distinguished professor grant of SEK 50 million over 10 years by the Swedish Research Council. The council awarded grants totalling some SEK 380 million to eight applicants.
Winner of the 2019 Geijer Prize Named
14 januari 2020
The Geijer Prize for history 2019 has been awarded to Mia Kuritzen Löwengart for her doctoral thesis A Matter of Social Urgency: The emergence of a symphony orchestra and concert house in Stockholm, ca. 1890-1926 and Hedvig Widmalm for her doctora...
Legendary runestone bears witness to climate anxiety 1,200 years ago
08 januari 2020
After more than 1,000 years, one of the greatest mysteries of the early Viking Age, the Rök runestone which bears the world’s longest runic inscription, appears to have been solved. According to four Swedish researchers, the puzzling inscription h...