“The American dilemma is far from resolved”


15 June 2020

Protesters in Minneapolis

Protesters in Minneapolis on 28 May 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.

Dag Blanck, Professor of North American Studies

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.

Dag Blanck
Professor of North American Studies
Uppsala University

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