From Power to PrejudiceThe Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America

From Power to PrejudiceThe Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America

Leah N. Gordon

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9780226238449

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

Although social structural, political economic, psychological, and legal conceptions of racism competed from the 1920s through the mid 1940s, individualistic theories of the race issue proved especially influential in postwar America. This book asks how and why racial individualism—which presented prejudice and discrimination as the root cause of racial conflict, centered individuals in the study of race relations, and suggested that one could secure racial justice by changing white minds and protecting African American rights—gained traction in the two decades following Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944). A study in the racialized politics of knowledge production, the book examines institutions where social scientists, civil rights activists, and proponents of improved race relations debated the sources of and best ways to fight “the race problem.” Scientism, behavioralism, and methodological individualism intersected with antiradicalism, civil rights legal successes, rightward shifts in American liberalism, and the enduring appeal of uncontroversial tolerance education, the book argues, to favor individualistic approaches to racial research and reform. These dynamics proved influential despite ongoing critique—most notably in African American led academic spaces—of social theories that reduced racial oppression to individual prejudice and discrimination. The book traces the flowering a non-economic, power-evasive conception of racism, highlights the centrality of inflated assumptions about what education can accomplish to postwar racial liberalism, and investigates how antiracist scholar-activists negotiated competing theoretical and political commitments.