The Continuing American Dilemma: White Resistance to Racial Change 40 Years After Myrdal


Center for Political Studies, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.


In the wake of dramatic changes in public opinion and social custom over the past 40 years, why do many white Americans continue to oppose efforts to bring about racial equality? One possible explanation centers on self-interest: from this perspective, whites' resistance to racial change reflects their perception that blacks pose real and tangible threats to their personal lives—to their neighborhoods, their jobs, their children's education, and their safety. Another possible explanation centers on “symbolic racism”: from this perspective, whites' opposition to racial change reflects their endorsement of racist sentiments and traditional American values, particularly individualism. This paper argues against the first explanation, for the second, and more generally that our understanding of the American dilemma would be enhanced by frequent and vigorous empirical confrontations among an expanded set of alternative explanations. With this objective in mind, the paper concludes by promoting several such explanations, each of which has a strong claim on the research agenda of the future.