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Arts & Culture

INDEPENDENT LENS: American Denial

National Guardsman escorting man around the time of a race riot in East St. Louis, June 6, 1917.
Courtesy of Bettman/CORBIS
National Guardsman escorting man around the time of a race riot in East St. Louis, June 6, 1917.

Airs Tuesday, July 12, 2016 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Are all Americans, regardless of race, complicit in the perpetuation of racial biases in our country? In the wake of recent events that have sparked a national dialogue on race dynamics, "American Denial" explores the impact of unconscious biases around race and class, using Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 investigation of Jim Crow racism.

In 1938, the Carnegie Corporation commissioned Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal to begin his landmark study of race and inequality in the United States. His question: How could a people who cherish freedom and fairness also create such a racially oppressive society?

Portrait of Gunnar Myrdal, 1937.
Courtesy of ARBETARRÖRELSENS ARKIV OCH BIBLIOTEK
Portrait of Gunnar Myrdal, 1937.
Gunnar Myrdal (right) with Ralph Bunche, Washington D.C., 1942. Bunche looks to camera.
Courtesy of ARBETARRÖRELSENS ARKIV OCH BIBLIOTEK
Gunnar Myrdal (right) with Ralph Bunche, Washington D.C., 1942. Bunche looks to camera.
"Untitled," Harlem, New York, 1947.
Courtesy of Photograph by Gordon Parks / Courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation
"Untitled," Harlem, New York, 1947.
Vince Brown, Historian, Harvard University.
Courtesy of Vital Pictures, Inc.
Vince Brown, Historian, Harvard University.
Reenactment photo of young man getting frisked by cops.
Courtesy of Zachary Stuart / Vital Pictures, Inc.
Reenactment photo of young man getting frisked by cops.

Published in 1944, “An American Dilemma” was cited in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate America’s schools. Seventy years later, Myrdal’s question continues to challenge America — how do we explain the disconnect between what we believe and what we practice in what some have called a “post-racial” America?

"American Denial" juxtaposes past and present, shifting from Myrdal’s investigation—and his own personal struggle with denial—and current stories of racial injustice that are often overlooked in our national insistence on the preeminence of the ideals of liberty, justice, and equality. Directed by Llewellyn Smith and produced by Christine Herbes-Sommers, Smith, and Kelly Thomson, this film premiered on INDEPENDENT LENS on Monday, February 23, 2015 on PBS.

An intellectual social visionary who later won a Nobel Prize in economics, Myrdal first visited the Jim Crow South at the invitation of Carnegie Corporation in 1938, where he was “shocked to the core by all the evils I saw.” With a team of scholars that included black political scientist Ralph Bunche, Myrdal wrote a massive 1500-page investigation of race he called “An American Dilemma.”

His study, now a considered a classic, challenged the veracity of the American Creed of equality, justice, and liberty for all by arguing that critically implicit in the Creed—which Myrdal called America’s “state religion”—was a nefarious conflict: the way for white Americans to explain to themselves why black Americans could not succeed in a nation offering equal opportunity was to view blacks as inferior. Myrdal argued that this view justified practices and policies that openly undermined and oppressed the lives of black citizens. But are we still a society living in this state of denial seventy years later, in an era marked by the election of the nation’s first black president?

"American Denial" sheds a unique light on the unconscious political and moral world of modern Americans. Archival footage, newsreels, nightly news reports, and rare southern home movies from the 30s and 40s thread through the story, as well as footage showing the surprising results of psychological tests of racial attitudes. Exploring “stop and frisk” practices, the incarceration crisis, and racially-patterned crime and poverty, the film features a wide array of historians, psychologists, and sociologists who offer expert insight and share their own personal, unsettling stories. The result is a unique and provocative film that challenges our assumptions about who we are and what we really believe.

Take the Implicit Association Test on Racial Bias.

Past episodes of INDEPENDENT LENS are available for online viewing. INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, Instagram, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter.

Implicit Bias Test

"This excerpt from the Independent Lens documentary American Denial looks at the “Implicit Bias Test

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