“How could a people who cherish freedom and fairness also create such a racially oppressive society?” That was the question a Nobel Prize winning Swedish scientist asked nearly 80 years ago – and which many since continue to ask, including the makers of the film American Denial, which debuts on most PBS stations on Monday, February 23.
Renowned Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal was hired by the Carnegie Corporation in 1938 to examine how a nation which cherished ideals of liberty, justice and equality could deny those very ideals to so many of its citizens. His landmark study, published near the end of World War II, challenged America to make good on the promises made and declared in its most sacred documents. The Supreme Court took up that gauntlet Myrdal threw down, citing his study in their ruling on Brown v. Board of Education – a ruling that led to the desegregation of public schools and gave the nascent civil rights movement its first great victory.
In American Denial director Llewellyn Smith and his team take Myrdal, his experiences in and observations on the Jim Crow South as the starting point of their journey of exploration into racism in America. Smith draws upon archival and newsreel footage to show how African-Americans were denied their rights from the days of segregated drinking fountains and poll taxes to the ongoing abuse of stop, check and frisk police searches that are applied far more to people of color than to white Americans.
American Denial also lets many people, including a number of noted historians, civil rights advocates and sociologists share their own journey on the long, slow path toward what Carnegie Corporation and Myrdal hoped would someday become a “post-racial” America. Myrdal’s daughters Sissela Bok and Kaj Folster, one a philosopher and the other a political activist, add their remembrances of their father and his investigation of what he sadly came to believe was a “state religion” that was used to justify the oppression of America’s minorities.
American Denial is not without hope. Due note is made of the incredible progress made against overwhelming odds in the 77 years since Myrdal started his investigation into what he called the “disconnect” between what America promised and what Americans actually practiced – and in many ways still practice – when it comes to minorities.
American Denial is part of the Independent Lens series and premieres on most PBS stations on Monday, February 23 at 10 pm ET.
Mark G. McLaughlin is a journalist, novelist, historian and game designer. Mark has had 17 games published, including his most recent Rebel Raiders of the High Seas by GMT Games (http://www.gmtgames.com/p-238-rebel-raiders-on-the-high-seas.asp)x, and his science fiction novel, Princess Ryan’s Star Marines, can be found on Amazon and Kindle (http://www.amazon.com/Princess-Ryans-Star-Marines-Save/dp/1466218487/ref…. ).