The Intractability of Racism: Niebuhr on Race Problems and Solutions

When Reinhold Niebuhr considered the ordeals of school integration in the 1950s, he pointed to an important lesson: “This whole chapter in our national history is instructive because it reveals that the group pride of men is one of the most ineradicable of human weaknesses” (Christianity & Crisis XVI, October 1, 1956, p. 122). This intractability was all the more surprising because the Western tradition contained so many elements that would commend a universalist perspective on human nature. “Despite all traditions of human universalism inherited from Stoic, Prophetic, and Christian sources, Western man—in common with all men—remains an unregenerate tribalist” (Christianity & Crisis, XXIV, no. 12, July 6, 1964, p. 133). Niebuhr believed that events like Southern resistance to integration could demonstrate the “intractability” of race problems. However, Niebuhr also believed that an understanding of human nature, particularly as set forth in the Christian faith, could help illuminate why racial problems were so difficult and point toward real though imperfect solutions to the problems.

In Niebuhr’s thinking, there are four important aspects of human nature that can illuminate the intractability of the race problem: the created tendency to value those closest to us, the anxiety over their maintenance and survival, the excessive pride and overvaluing of our groups, and the aggravation of individual sinful tendencies in group dynamics.

Christian Faith and the Illumination of the Race Problem
The first element is a created tendency to value those closest to us. The Christian view of human beings is that they are not created evil but that they become evil by the misuse of created good. Thus, in all evils there is an element of good. Valuing our own countries and families is good. This is seen most obviously in the care that parents have for their children and their desire that they would live, survive, and thrive. Thus, the race problem is to some degree rooted in our nature as biological and ethnic beings.

What smacks up against our desire for the survival of our families or races is our tenuous and finite position. Other groups oppose ours. Disasters can overtake us. We are small, but we can to some degree see the whole. In other words, “man is a finite spirit, lacking identity with the whole, yet [he is] capable in some sense of envisaging the whole. . .” (The Nature & Destiny of Man [NDM 1], Vol. 1, p. 181). This includes potential pitfalls, struggles, and disasters. The gap between what we want to see happen and the many challenges to making it happen is anxiety.

The result of anxiety is what Niebuhr calls pride. When we move beyond our insecurity and anxiety and seek to remove all insecurity through power, we commit the sin of pride, imagining ourselves to be the center of reality, making ourselves God. “The ego does not feel secure and therefore grasps for more in order to make itself secure. It does not regard itself as sufficiently significant or respected or feared and therefore seeks to enhance its position in nature and in society” (NDM1, p. 189). For the individual, this can be a hard position to maintain. Thus, Niebuhr observes that it is more likely that the group will be exalted rather than the individual. As Langdon Gilkey, in his introduction to Moral Man and Immoral Society writes:

As Niebuhr once remarked, it was only an unusual individual who could feel his own power or his wisdom to be such that they could claim to be the center of the world. As a consequence, most of us make this claim together, through the community of which we are a part: a tribe, family, religion, nation, race, gender, profession, or church. Serious sins are mostly communal sins. (xxiii)

The group dynamic will be the fullest manifestation of pride and thus also of racial pride and injustice.

Thus, racial pride is always intertwined with anxiety. Niebuhr provides several examples of how this works out in his article, “Christian Faith and the Race Problem” (in Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr [L&J], pp. 126–127). In one particularly lucid passage he says: “This ultimate man has a darkly conscious sense of the fact that he is not as ultimate as he pretends, and that the groups that he pretends to hold in contempt might actually beat him at his own game if he relaxed the restraints that he has placed upon them” (ibid., p. 127). There is a fear that we are not as great as we think we are that manifests itself in oppressive activity.

This leads us to the fourth point concerning group morality. Group morality is generally much lower than that of individuals. It tends to sink to the lowest common denominator. As Niebuhr expresses it: “But individual limitations have a cumulative effect in human societies” (Moral Man and Immoral Society [MMIS], p. 25). The result is, as Niebuhr says, that the “common members of any national community, while sentimentally desiring peace, nevertheless indulge impulses of envy, jealousy, pride, bigotry, and greed which make for conflict between communities” (ibid., 16). Thus, Niebuhr concluded (and here history has borne out his prediction):

However large the number of individual white men who do and who will identify themselves completely with the Negro cause, the white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so. Upon this one point one may speak with a dogmatism which all history justifies (ibid., 253).

The limitations of group imagination and morality make the problems of race all the more intractable.

Objections to Niebuhr’s Analysis
At this point, we should consider two objections to Niebuhr’s view. The first objection is that the emphasis on pride says nothing to those who are oppressed because of race. As Therese B. DeLisio states it: “As feminist theologians and some third-world theologians have pointed out, Niebuhr’s doctrine of sin has no application to the powerless, while they are powerless” (“Did Reinhold Niebuhr Care About the Race Problem?” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 61 no 3 – 4 2008, p. 12). To this, Niebuhr would respond that pride is not the exclusive possession of the strong. Can we really say that oppressed groups have no tendency to adopt “contemptuous attitudes toward other groups and to express appreciation of their own characteristic culture by depreciating others” (“The Confession of a Tired Radical” in L&J, p. 121)? However, Niebuhr does recognize that “[w]hatever group happens to be in the majority seems to be the most bigoted simply because it is in a position where it can indulge its arrogance more freely” (ibid.). In light of this reality, there is a temptation in the oppressed to give up and simply be absorbed by the oppressor. As Migeul De La Torre sums up the feminist critique of Niebuhr: “the sin for woman is better described as the failure to be a self” (“Mad Men, Competitive Women, and Invisible Hispanics” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 28, no. 1 Spr 2012, p. 123). Niebuhr recognized the possibility that someone could simply seek to escape reality and give up. He called it perhaps confusedly “sensuality.” He says that sometimes man can seek “to hide his freedom and by losing himself in some aspect of the world’s vitalities. In that case his sin may be defined as sensuality rather than pride” (NDM 1, 179). There is always the temptation that the oppressed could accept something less than full humanity, and this is sin, according to Niebuhr.

The second objection is that Niebuhr’s view is so pessimistic that it encourages complacency. Again, Therese DeLisio states this objection summarily: “Neibuhr’s realism is as limited today as it was in Niebuhr’s time, in its adequacy to constructively address the problem of racism, because ‘realism’ too easily degrades into defeatism” (“Did Reinhold Niebuhr Care About the Race Problem?”, 12). This is a common misunderstanding of Niebuhr’s views. Those who approve of his views can often state his views as if they imply little possibility for change. A careful reading of Niebuhr shows that he puts no limit on what can be achieved in society or by an individual. In his book Faith and History (as one example among many), he criticizes Christian approaches that “betray a defeatist attitude toward the social existence of mankind” (199). He goes on to say that such views fail “to understand that the moral ambiguity in all social structures and institutions does not destroy the possibility of indeterminate improvement in them” (emphasis mine, ibid.). There is just one qualification: “except of course the one limit, that there will be some corruption, as well as deficiency, of virtue and truth on the new level of achievements” (NDM 2, 156). In Niebuhr’s view there is plenty of reason for a cautious optimism and plenty of room to dream about how things could be better.

Potential Solutions to the Race Problem
The answer to this objection leads us to consider solutions. Seeing how deep-seated racism is, it is not too surprising that some might wonder if there are solutions at all. Niebuhr does believe that there are solutions, but they require much more effort than is commonly believed. The larger the rock, the more force will be required to move it. Niebuhr believes that the race problem is a very large rock indeed, but it can certainly be moved. It just requires many resources. As Niebuhr says, “A democratic society must use every stratagem of education and every resource of religion . . .” (The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness [CLCD], p. 143).

We will consider three methods or strategies: politics, education, and religion. Each have their limits, and each provides their own resources.

First, there is political and social action. Political action is necessary because racism is often codified in law and social systems and structures. This was true in the American South under segregation, but it is also true in more subtle ways in many other contexts. A wise use of legislation and political action can help to break down barriers and bring about racial reconciliation. However, the danger of the use of coercion is that it can provoke resentment and anxiety. As Niebuhr says:

Conflict and coercion are manifestly such dangerous instruments. They are so fruitful of the very evils from which society must be saved than an intelligent society will not countenance their indiscriminate use. . . . Moral reason must learn how to make coercion its ally without running the risk of a Pyrrhic victory in which the ally exploits and negates the triumph. (MMIS, p. 238)

Since this is the case, we must be very careful about the specific method we use:

. . . not by an effort to abolish coercion in the life of collective man, but by reducing it to a minimum, by counselling the use of such types of coercion as are most compatible with the moral and rational factors in human society and by discriminating between the purposes and ends for which coercion is used. (ibid., 234)

Pride cannot be easily swept away. Pride provoked readily becomes resentment. Pride is also rooted in anxiety. Heedless social action can easily increase anxiety and so produce a counter-reaction. This is inevitable to a degree, but there are methods, such as those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi, that can reduce resentment and anxiety to a minimum.

The second method is education. This includes scientific demonstration of a common biology, demonstration of the virtues of a particular race or ethnic group, and a realistic explanation of the history of one’s own race and ethnic group that does not gloss over its weaknesses. The problem is that education has not simply removed racism. It persists even in modern societies where education is extensively available. This is a necessary method, but it is wrong to assume that it will be sufficient. The problem here is that the race issue is deeper than stupidity, it “must be broken by repentance and not merely by enlightenment” (“Christian Faith and the Race Problem” in L&J, 128).

This leads us to the final method: religion. Niebuhr is right in warning that religion itself can often be a tool of human pride. As he says, “human pride is more powerful than any instruments of which it avails itself” (NDM 2, 128). In the South, the presence of evangelical Christianity was at the very least not very helpful in removing oppression of African-Americans and was probably a hindrance. So, we should be cautious in thinking that Christianity will easily dislodge racism. However, there are three ways in which the Christian faith can help us. First, it should give us a sense of humility before God. Second, it can calm our anxiety through trust in God’s care. Third, it teaches us of the brotherhood of man and continually challenges our tendency to be tribalistic. As Niebuhr pointed out repeatedly, Jesus says: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” (Mt. 5:44).

The race problem is challenging and often intractable. As Niebuhr explains, “The ideal of racial brotherhood is the ‘law of God’ in which we delight ‘after the inward man’; but racial arrogance is ‘the law in our members which wars against the law that is in our mind.’” (CLCD, 142). However, we should not give up. One of Niebuhr’s favorite verses is that we are “perplexed but not in despair” (2 Cor. 4:8). There is no reason to assume that this situation cannot be better. Niebuhr, writing in 1942 said that “there are not half a dozen churches in our whole nation that have transcended race pride in their corporate life to any considerable degree,” (“The Race Problem” in L&J, 130) and in 1944 that “in the Northern churches there is frequently no fellowship below the level of the general conference of the entire church” (“The Negro Issue in America” in L&J, 145). This, we can say, is much less the case, and there seems to be a greater desire amongst Christians today to visibly demonstrate the unity we have in Jesus. This should lead us not to despair. But we’ve got a long way to go, and so, as William Castor advised, “Let’s keep a sense of urgency in the need to break the grip of the strong racial and ethnic mindset that is our historical burden” (“Deconstructing the Racialist Framework,” in Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church, edited by Doug Serven, 208).


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