By Robert A. Vella
Last night, PBS aired an Independent Lens documentary titled American Denial which examined a sociological study of racism in America begun in the 1930s. It is the most profound and uncomfortably revealing work of journalism I’ve ever seen on the subject of race which I’m rating as MUST SEE for the readers of this blog.
Of particular note is its focus on the abject disparity between the conscious and subconscious attitudes of white Americans towards black people and other ethnic groups. The documentary also exposes how this psychological phenomenon impacts cultural perceptions, expectations, and biases in America which affect all persons regardless of race and ethnicity. Examples include doctors who treat people differently even though the patients suffer from the same condition, black children who choose white dolls as more “beautiful” and “good,” political dynamics which label poor blacks as “inferior,” and law enforcement practices which criminalize the very existence of black people in America.
American Denial also confronts racism more directly with segments showing how southern whites reacted to suggestions comparing Jim Crow laws (i.e. segregation) to the Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe, as well as to suggestions asserting that obsessive white fear of black sexuality concealed deeply-held and culturally taboo emotions.
From PBS – Independent Lens – American Denial:
Follow the story of Swedish researcher Gunnar Myrdal whose landmark 1944 study, An American Dilemma, probed deep into the United States’ racial psyche. The film weaves a narrative that exposes some of the potential underlying causes of racial biases still rooted in America’s systems and institutions today.
An intellectual social visionary who later won a Nobel Prize in economics, Myrdal first visited the Jim Crow South at the invitation of the Carnegie Corporation in 1938, where he was “shocked to the core by all the evils [he] saw.” With a team of scholars that included black political scientist Ralph Bunche, Myrdal wrote his massive 1,500-page investigation of race, now considered a classic.
An American Dilemma challenged the veracity of the American creed of equality, justice, and liberty for all. It argued that critically implicit in that creed — which Myrdal called America’s “state religion” — was a more shameful conflict: white Americans explained away the lack of opportunity for blacks by labeling them inferior. Myrdal argued that this view justified practices and policies that openly undermined and oppressed the lives of black citizens. Seventy years later, are we still a society living in this state of denial, in an era marked by the election of the nation’s first black president?
American Denial sheds light on the unconscious political and moral world of modern Americans, using archival footage, newsreels, nightly news reports, and rare southern home movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, as well as research footage, websites, and YouTube films showing psychological testing of racial attitudes. Exploring “stop-and-frisk” practices, the incarceration crisis, and racially-patterned 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.
Watch the documentary here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365422025/