The white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so.” —Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932, via James Cone
Niebuhr wrote wrote this statement 25-30 years before the height of the civil rights movement. It suggests a clarity about US race relations that he perceived during the era of lynching but somehow couldn’t sustain while Christians resisted desegregation and police officers cracked protesters’ skulls on the street.
According to James Cone, Martin Luther King, Jr., once answered Niebuhr with the line, “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.” Niebuhr presumed that marginalized people should be patient with the mainstream.
And that expectation doesn’t square with his conclusion in the quote above.
I’ve been struggling with the quote over the last few days, not just because I have moments when I think he was right, but also because he seems to promote the use of force—and I don’t believe there’s evidence that ethical evolution can be “forced.”
The history of the civil rights movement is a perfect example of the gap between legal compliance and ethical enlightenment.
Loving v. Virginia, the SCOTUS case that challenged laws banning interracial marriages, was settled in 1967. The case meant that White and non-White Americans could marry three years before most of their countrymen thought it should even be legal and almost thirty years before a simple majority of other residents “approved.”
Gallup’s polls showed this majority shift from disapproval to approval somewhere between 1994 and 1997: Loving v. Virginia created a bridge that most people in this country didn’t want to walk across themselves and didn’t think their children should walk either.
“Force” didn’t change them. I don’t know what did, but I don’t think it was the threat of state power or street pressure. I don’t know that it was moral maturity either: there’s been too much continuing institutional racism since the 1960s for me to suggest the United States simply grew up. Still today, more White Americans than Black Americans disapprove of interracial marriage.
This is a question that I’m asking with others who work on long-term social change and not just temporary mass mobilization: what inspires deep change?
What really helps us to apply our hermeneutic of suspicion first to the casual assumptions we grew up with and only secondarily to other people? What makes it easier for us to trust one another to the point that we will dismantle oppressive institutions and will walk across the bridges new public policy builds for us?