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Myrdal Dies; Wrote Classic Racial Study

May 18, 1987|PENELOPE McMILLAN | Times Staff Writer

Gunnar Myrdal, Nobel Prize-winning Swedish social economist and author of a landmark study of American blacks, died Sunday in Stockholm. He was 88.

Myrdal, who was considered one of the most influential foreign observers of the United States since the 19th-Century French writer Alexis de Toqueville, died at the Ersta Hospital in Stockholm, according to the Swedish news agency TT, after a long illness.

His classic work on American race relations, "An American Dilemma," was a monumental study of racism and has been reissued in more than two dozen editions since it first appeared in 1944.

Considered a classic in its field, the 1,483-page book delineating inequality between black and white Americans was cited by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation.

Myrdal won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm cited him in the award for "penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena."

His wife, Alva, a feminist, diplomat and anti-war activist, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 for her work in disarmament--the first time a husband and wife had won in separate categories. She died in February, 1986.

A lifelong political activist, Myrdal was a member of the Swedish Parliament from 1935-38 before beginning his research into U.S. race problems. He also served as minister of commerce between 1945-47, and later spent 10 years as secretary-general of the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe.

A proponent of broad economic planning, he was increasingly concerned in the last several years over the United States' lack of an effective energy policy and chronic inflation.

"Today I have a darker view of economic development," he said in an interview in early 1986, adding that he feared "a depression in the United States--as strong or stronger than the one that followed the stock market crash in 1929."

Description of Work

His work was generally described by critics and academicians as economic and sociological studies of the haves versus have-nots. Besides "An American Dilemma," his best-known books were "The Political Elements in the Development of Economic Theory," (1930) and "Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations" (1968).

Karl Gunnar Myrdal was born Dec. 6, 1898, in Gustafs Parish in central Sweden, the oldest of four children whose father was a construction contractor. After graduating from the University of Stockholm with a law degree in 1923, he briefly practiced law but then returned to school. He emerged with a doctorate in economics in 1927.

He married a fellow university student, Alva Reimer, who was to become an internationally known figure in her own right, in 1924. They had three children.

After obtaining an appointment at Stockholm University as a docent in political economy, Myrdal visited the United States on a Rockefeller fellowship, arriving in New York the day before the big Wall Street crash of 1929. Later he would say his travels through the country during that year of crisis stimulated his interest in politics and its effect on economic theory.

Husband-Wife Team

In 1934, he and his wife wrote "Crisis in the Population Question," a study of Sweden's declining birthrate that was said to have strongly influenced Scandinavian social policies and reforms.

He returned to the United States in 1938, this time with a Carnegie Corp. grant to study American race relations. Exhaustive research on the economic, social, psychological, historical and anthropological aspects of the subject resulted in two volumes: "An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy."

One political science scholar, Harold Foote Gosnell, called it "one of the best political commentaries on American life that has ever been written."

Myrdal's study results, which seem almost mundane today but were striking at the time, found that whites discriminated against blacks in use of public facilities, voting rights, courts and the police, employment, intermarriage between races and personal relations.

"White prejudice and discrimination keeps the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals," he wrote.

He also said that separate facilities cannot be equal, a tenet adopted in the 1954 Supreme Court's school desegregation decision.

Psychologist and educator Kenneth Clark, who was a graduate student in the late 1930s and helped in the research for "American Dilemma," said: "There's no question it was a turning point in American view of racism. Gunnar Myrdal's contribution was not only in classic perspective and theory, but . . . a perspective of human values."

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