Niebuhr On Race In America

by Dish Staff


The evangelical ethicist David Gushee pulled down Reinhold Niebuhr’s early masterpiece, Moral Man and Immoral Society, from his shelf, re-reading it with Michael Brown and Eric Garner in mind. Some background:

Written to pierce any surviving liberal optimism as the Roaring ’20s gave way to the disastrous ’30s, Niebuhr’s primary thesis concerns the effects of sin on human society and, in particular, on human collectivities or groups. Niebuhr says that all human life is marked by sin, especially in the forms of ignorance and selfishness, but at least the individual sometimes demonstrates the potential to rise above ignorance and selfishness to reach rational analysis and unselfish concern for others. Human groups, on the other hand, are both more stupid and more selfish than individuals. They seem especially impervious either to rational or moral appeal, easily prone to self-deception and demagoguery, and apparently needful of the imposition of a power greater than their own power if they are to accede to any changes that cut against their own self-interest.

Though the book focuses on economics, Gushee highlights Niebuhr’s telling comments on race: 

Niebuhr writes: “It is hopeless for the Negro to expect complete emancipation from the menial social and economic position into which the white man has forced him, merely be trusting in the moral sense of the white race.” That’s because, as Niebuhr writes throughout, groups which benefit from the existing structure of society have no particular interest in seeing that structure changed.

Moreover, privileged groups have an extraordinary ability to “identif[y] [their] interests with the peace and order of society.” Self-deception reigns among the privileged because, among other reasons, to see reality more truly would place an unbearable moral pressure on such groups to resign privilege in favor of greater justice. Instead, privileged groups call in the forces of state power in the purported interests of the “peace and order” of society as a whole, but in fact to suppress movements of the oppressed for social change and greater justice.

Knowing that only forceful resistance to white privilege has any hope of changing the existing structures of power, Niebuhr ponders whether that pressure will be more effective if it is violent or if it is nonviolent. Niebuhr refuses to draw an absolute distinction between these forms of pressure. He does conclude that “non-violence is a particularly strategic instrument for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority and has no possibility of developing sufficient power to set against its oppressors. The emancipation of the Negro race in America probably waits upon the adequate development of this kind of social and political strategy.”

The Dish recently featured Gushee’s groundbreaking speech on the full inclusion of gay Christians in the Church here.

(Photo: A protester waves a “black and white” modified US flag during a march following the grand jury decision in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on November 24, 2014. By Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)