Last summer, the killings of two unarmed African American men—Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—by white police officers reignited the national conversation about racial inequality in the United States. In both cases, grand juries declined to indict the officers involved. The rulings provoked a wave of protest marches, rallies, and road blockades across the country, as demonstrators of all skin colors proclaimed to the nation and to the world that “black lives matter.”
The upheaval has stood in stark contrast to the promise of a transformation in race relations that President Barack Obama’s inauguration appeared to hold six years ago. For many of Obama’s supporters, his election represented a milestone in U.S. history, marking the dawn of a “postracial” society—a new era in which skin color would no longer stand as a barrier to opportunity or achievement. Obama himself embraced this imagery, insisting that “there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” Although he acknowledged the country’s history of racial division and conflict, he clearly envisioned a future in which racial distinctions would fade into insignificance, and he promoted himself as an avatar of that future.
Such lofty rhetoric already seems dated. But even as recent protests over race affirmed racial inequality as a defining feature of American life, it also offered a reminder of just how much the racial landscape in the United States has changed since the mid-twentieth century. Analyzing U.S. race relations in 1944, the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal identified what he called “an American dilemma”: the wide gap between the American ideals of liberty and equality and the actual conditions of African American life. In Myrdal’s view, racism was the root cause of the problem. Myrdal found that white Americans’ support for segregation sprang from a widespread belief in black inferiority and that blacks’ disadvantaged status tended to