Policy Papers


Colour-blind conservatism and public policy from Reinhold Niebuhr to Obama

Gideon Mailer |

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Executive Summary

  • Policy analysts note a systemic lag in racial equality in American socio-economic life, despite the success of race-neutral legislation since the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. There remains a disparity between whites and African-Americans in their ability to access high level medical, educational, vocational, and social services.
  • During the era of the US Civil Rights movement, the influential theologian and public policy commentator Reinhold Niebuhr correctly predicted that such a systemic lag would continue long after federal legislation against racial injustice.
  • Since the election of Obama, scholars and politicians have contributed to a ‘Niebuhr industry’ in American public policy commentary. To a greater extent than any other 20th century religious thinker, Niebuhr’s ideas have been appropriated by policy analysts across the political spectrum.
  • Niebuhr’s contribution to the ideology of the Civil Rights movement provides a significant historical case study that we can use to better understand today’s dilemmas regarding the role of central federal authority in redressing racial imbalances.
  • From the 1970s to the present day, conservative public policy commentators have tried to use Niebuhr’s ideas in opposition to affirmative action. Since the election of Obama, they have accused the President of unrealistic optimism in his support for large-scale government initiatives, many of which are intended to impact positively against the continuing disadvantages of African-American communities.
  • But Niebuhr did not eschew the importance of state and federal institutions in diminishing racial inequality. He argued that it was precisely the intractability of racial distinction that required continued federal activity even after the legal dismantling of segregation. He recommended channelling ethnic tensions through representative mechanisms, rather than simply wishing them away.
  • Niebuhr’s assessment of American constitutionalism during the 1960s can inform a relatively radical and interventionist policy agenda in the post-Obama era as a means to counter the systemic lag in racial equality in American socio-economic life, contrary to those who have appropriated  his ideas in opposition to affirmative action and other policies with an intended ethno-racial dimension.

Introduction: Niebuhr and government interventionism in the age of Obama

The election of America’s first black president has been hailed as the culmination of a struggle that began during the era of the Civil Rights movement – a period  that coincided with the career of Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian, ethical philosopher, policy thinker, and former professor at Union Theological Seminary (1892-1971). Having made the front cover of Time magazine as one of America’s most influential public policy commentators, Niebuhr famously deployed his religious conception of Original Sin in order to question liberal political optimism. In particular, he queried those who believed that federal institutions could accomplish racial equality merely through top-down acts of legislation. However benevolent governments seemed, Niebuhr asserted, they were most likely comprised of fallible individuals whose support for racial equality masked more selfish interests. ‘Race pride’, Niebuhr argued in 1954, would dissipate more effectively in response to the gradual ‘interaction between law and custom’ in local communities - rather than from centralized government directives. Grand federal gestures, according to Niebuhr, risked inspiring a white backlash that would negate the positive steps put in place by more gradual acts of desegregation.

Since 2008, conservative writers, politicians, and policy-makers have frequently employed veiled racial allusions while referencing the political and moral theories of Niebuhr. Opposing the projected unintended consequences of Obamacare and other federal legislation, they have accused the President and the liberal left of unrealistic optimism in their support for large-scale government initiatives, many of which are intended to impact positively against the continuing disadvantages of African-American communities. In censuring urban health and welfare policies as tantamount to social engineering, they have incorporated critical ideas that first appeared in resistance to affirmative action during the 1970s, and which also attempted to use the philosophy of Niebuhr to provide intellectual and moral coherence. They have questioned the motivation and efficacy of those who claim to redress socio-economic imbalances through centrally-directed public policy (including Obamacare).

The contemporary ideology of conservative colour-blindness does not deny the ways in which segregation once connected the corrupt personal interests of a white racial pride to the communal authority of government (through the notorious discriminatory ‘Jim Crow’ racial legislation persisting in the southern states long after the US Civil War). But in the decades following the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, according to its reasoning, specific racial interests have once again been attached to state and federal authority through affirmative action and other legislation – what Niebuhr might have defined as an ironic consequence of government activism that purported to promote a colour-blind society.

Opposing affirmative action in favour of African American vocational and educational interests, conservative activists often use Martin Luther King’s religious sermons on racial equality and colour blindness to support their agenda. They highlight his strong influence by Niebuhr during the 1950s and 1960s in order to suggest his innate distrust of all federal institutions and laws – whether segregated or not.

Alongside its (re)reading of Niebuhr and King, color-blind conservatism has often reimagined the legacy of the Civil Rights movement through reference to the founding of the American constitution during the 1780s. It has tended to stress the necessary neutrality of government interventionism, as supposedly promoted by America’s eighteenth-century constitutional architects - particularly James Madison. A desire for neutrality, color-blind conservatives suggest, provides a framework to oppose any further state and federal initiatives in racial matters following the Civil Rights Act.

Ironically, conservative commentators may have gravitated towards a Niebuhrian discussion of public policy because Obama himself has often referenced the theologian, in favor of a rather different public policy agenda. During his first election campaign Obama professed his admiration for Niebuhr for having underlined man’s dual potential for good and evil, for realizing perfection but also for sullying it. Obama noted these assertions and lauded Niebuhr for having understood the need to balance ‘human intractability’ with ‘human hope’ in considering the merits of domestic and foreign policy.

On the one hand, Niebuhr provided philosophical support for Obama’s pragmatic appeal to the center ground. As evidenced by most opinion polls since 2007, mainstream American public opinion has rarely denied the existence of socio-economic injustice in America, nor the flourishing of painful inequality abroad. But it has also shown tentativeness and fear regarding their eradication through large-scale efforts, whether at home or internationally. Those efforts, it is often suggested, might prove costly or futile in light of the intractable nature of social injustice.  On the other hand, there remains another side to Niebuhr’s influence on Obama, which conservatives and even pragmatists have been less likely to note. In his assessment of public policy matters during the 1950s and 1960s, Niebuhr often distinguished between giddy optimism and more transcendent hope – a distinction that has influenced Obama in his use of hope as a motif to appeal to a younger and potentially more liberal demographic, separate from his pragmatic and gradualistic statements about the eradication of social inequality.

As Obama stated in 2007, knowledge about intractable injustice should not always be used as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. Here he echoed Niebuhr, who in 1964 reminded Americans that pride could just as easily be manifested among those who were ‘self-satisfied’ in pointing out the universality of sin. Their fatalistic vision, in his opinion, merely provided a convenient justification for inaction in regard to the welfare of other men. In 1954 Niebuhr warned liberals that government legislation might encourage a grassroots backlash against centralize authority, reducing rather than enhancing the course of racial equality. But a decade later he chided conservatives who used such knowledge to prevent any form of concerted action from government legislation.

It is no wonder, then, that the commentator Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has noted the contradictory and confusing legacy of ‘Reinhold Niebuhr’s Long Shadow’ in the ‘acrid dispute between liberals and conservatives’ during the post-Reagan era. As Schlesinger has pointed out, policy wonks of all stripes have posthumously claimed him as their own - whether opposed to or in favour of federal interventionism in domestic and foreign affairs. Since Obama’s statements, indeed, scholars and politicians have contributed to what has been described as a burgeoning ‘Niebuhr industry’ in American public policy debate. Once again, they have debated whether Niebuhr was liberal or conservative, pragmatic or idealistic, pessimistic or positive; and whether he perceived such dichotomies as in some way false when they were related to government legislation. According to Paul Elie, ‘the Niebuhr revival [after Obama] has been perplexing, even bizarre’.

The remaining part of this paper considers Niebuhr’s historical understanding of the relationship between public policy and civil rights more closely, in order to assess its legacy in conservative opposition to affirmative action up to the present day. How in fact did Niebuhr link his vision of the eighteenth-century founding of the American constitution, and his religious philosophy, to the ideology of the Civil Rights movement? How have modern conservative thinkers developed from this a rather different appreciation of the relationship between American constitutional history, government activism, and racial interest groups? In asking these questions this paper seeks to provide a significant historical dimension that we can use to better understand today’s dilemmas regarding the role of central federal authority in redressing racial imbalances; not just through affirmative action but also in other more general legislative areas.

The Niebuhrian vision of American constitutional history, instead of being claimed as ‘conservative,’ might in fact inform a relatively radical and interventionist policy agenda in the post-Obama era; a programme of policy seen as a means to counter the systemic lag in racial equality in American socio-economic life, quite contrary to the policy implications of the developing ideology of colour-blind conservatism.

Race and the Niebuhrian vision of American constitutional history

In his famous definition of democracy in Children of Light, Children of Darkness (1944), Reinhold Niebuhr claimed that ‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary’. Niebuhr’s reasoning consciously echoed the writings of James Madison, chief architect of the 1787 American Constitution. In Federalist 55, which he published in order to defend his constitutional design, Madison pointed out ‘[that] in all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason.’ Having acknowledged that the latent causes of faction were ‘sown in the nature of man’ in Federalist Number 10, Madison recommended using legislative bodies to balance subjective interest groups against each other. He sought to harness rather than deny their negative traits, allowing a check between equal and opposing egocentric forces.

Niebuhr was attracted to Madison’s suggestion that innate factionalism and egoism among political representatives required channeling through appropriate government structures. In Man’s Nature and His Communities he claimed that ‘Madison was the only one of the founding fathers who made a realistic analysis of both power and interest from a political and democratic perspective. He was governed by a basic insight of political realism, namely the ‘intimate relation’ between reason and self-love. He did not propose to suppress faction but to manage it, because he wisely realized that the price of liberty was the free play of interests [and their selfish motives] in collective terms.’ Niebuhr thus conceived of the Madisonian conception of ‘political order as a vast realm of mutually dependent and conflicting powers’ that in turn called for ‘the specific equilibria of forces’ in representative government.

Yet as Niebuhr later noted in 1965, Madison ‘did not anticipate that Western democracies would organize their procedures through the very ‘factions’ or parties, which the Founding Fathers so much abhorred’. In his view parties had become problematic in their formal attachment to central government and in their hubristic desire to control it in order to promote their factional interests. Those interests, unfortunately, had come to include race bigotry – ‘something darker and more terrible than mere stupidity’ that was regrettably ‘not eradicated by enlightenment alone’. According to Niebuhr, the collective enlargement of individual white pride had become sufficient to override what Madison had designed as a counterpoise between many varied factional interests in government. Rather than incorporating competing interests, the marginalization of African-Americans had come to dominate legislative discourse in the first half of the twentieth century.

Even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Niebuhr argued, collective white interests were likely to remain entrenched in the American party system, on both sides of Congress. Political scientist Ira Katznelson has exposed a concrete instance of the full scope of how this was achieved seemingly ‘invisibly’ in post-war US government policy through pro-white affirmative action.

Misreading the eighteenth-century American Founding, from the 1970s to the present day

Given his vision of unassailable race pride, Niebuhr therefore avoided any ‘liberal utopian’ imagining of racial and cultural neutrality in the political process. In his view, white liberals paid lip-service to equality without considering the immutability of human egoism. In doing so, they failed to understand the intractability of racial conflict in America. Though he opposed segregation, therefore, he also cautioned liberals for believing that a few acts of legislation could create a colour-blind community overnight. Notwithstanding their tentative support for civil rights, Niebuhr claimed that they, like ‘all groups, religious and racial, tend to preserve their self-respect by adopting contemptuous attitudes toward other groups and to express their appreciation of their own characteristic culture by deprecating that of others’.

Since the 1970s, a strand of conservative thought has attempted to incorporate Niebuhr’s critique of liberal optimism alongside a particular vision of the founding philosophy of the American constitution, in opposition to government-sanctioned affirmative action. For example, 35 years after Niebuhr published Moral Man and Immoral Society, the former civil rights activist William Bennet delivered a lecture at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Speaking in November 1993, Bennet was introduced as a man who had been ‘persecuted in 1968 by conservatives and by liberals in the 1990s’ merely for arguing that ‘America should be a colour-blind society in which we do not discriminate or give preference based on race.’ The introduction continued: ‘Bill Bennett was beaten up for holding these views in Mississippi in 1968. Today, when he expresses the same views, he is sharply criticized by race-conscious liberals from the Northeast and Midwest. Meanwhile black and white conservatives in Mississippi are now joining forces on issues such as prayer in the schools.’ Liberals were portrayed as dividing contemporary America as had an earlier generation of conservatives. Both, according to the introduction, advocated race consciousness. Bennet continued on this theme, using a Niebuhrian vocabulary to highlight his own ‘ironic situation.’ Pointing out that Christian piety enabled unity between blacks and whites, he suggested to his audience that Martin Luther King did ‘pretty well [with] Reinhold Niebuhr’ as a model to remind him of the dangers posed by government-sanctioned racial preferencing.

Bennet claimed to remind modern liberals of King’s conservative colour-blindness, as partially inspired by Niebuhr - a moral obligation to limit federal welfare initiatives that were deemed to favor one group over another. Walter Williams, an economist and libertarian, made a similar argument in 1993: ‘[civil rights organizations] once part of a proud struggle have now squandered their moral authority. They are little more than race hustlers championing a racial spoils system. They no longer seek fair play and a colour-blind society; their agenda is one of group rights where quota is king and colour-blindness is viewed with contempt. Today’s civil rights organizations differ only in degree, but not in kind, from white racist organizations past and present.’ Ward Connerly was a leading proponent of California’s Proposition 209, which sought to ban affirmative action in public universities. In 1997 he claimed to ‘fight to get the nation back on the journey that Dr. King laid out.’ Williams and Connerly used reasoning that was ostensibly similar to Niebuhr’s critique of group egoism. They distinguished modern government initiatives from the supposedly colour-blind legacy of King. They argued that government action in historically black communities violated a standard of race-neutrality that was set by Civil Rights leaders in their desire to restore American constitutionalism to its founding ideals.

In the twenty-first century some conservative politicians and commentators have appropriated King in similar ways. In 2003, for example, in his address to the First Baptist Church in Landover, Maryland George W. Bush lauded the benefits of local religious initiatives over federal interventionism, invoking the colour-blind legacy of King. A month later, writing under his own name, Bush’s speechwriter David Frum emphasized the importance of neutral racial policies and the limitation of affirmative action. Rejecting the notion that equality was contingent on radical changes wrought by federal policy, he highlighted a conservative legacy of the civil rights movement, which had approached social change in the way of the eighteenth-century American founders:

We can forgive George Washington and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson for founding a slave-holding republic precisely because we know that the republic abolished slavery, and we can forgive Martin Luther King for consorting with Communists because we know that the Communists’ hopes to use civil rights to upend the free-market system were thwarted… In the case of the civil-rights movement, the country accepted what was acceptable (the demand for full legal equality between the races) and rejected what was unacceptable (the demands for a radical redistribution of wealth). That’s how progress proceeds.

According to influential factions of the Civil Rights movement, socio-economic improvement in African-American communities required traditional governing philosophies to be overhauled. Frum opposed the radicalism inherent in such a conclusion. The eventual abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, he pointed out, returned Americans to their founding ideals of liberty and neutrality without requiring every aspect of American civic life to be overturned. Similarly, the Civil Rights movement permitted the entrenchment of racial equality without maintaining its flirtation with Communists who demanded fundamental restructuring of American economic institutions. So Frum sought to demonstrate ‘the way in which new ideas get integrated into the national life precisely by evolving into new and more conservative forms that all Americans can accept after the fact.’

Frum appropriated a notion of colour-blindess while circumventing more radical aspects of King’s civic vision. By describing the universal morality of the founding of the American constitution he has wrestled away the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement from those who seek societal change through the restructuring of federal institutions, and who regard ‘themselves as the movement’s true inheritors’. Carolyn Garris, Program Coordinator in the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, used similar reasoning in a 2006 policy document. ‘In a nation divided by cultural diversity’, Garris argued, ‘conservatives defend and celebrate the characteristics that we share as Americans’ by opposing affirmative action. As America apparently drifted ‘from the ideas and ideals of the Founders, conservatives stand with King as believers that the principles of the American Founding are as relevant today as in 1776.’ In opposing the federal government for favouring one ethnic group over another, she argued that only conservatives could provide true unity between citizens. Racial justice would follow gradual developments that were ‘expressed in our social interactions…[so as to harness] a morally-informed sense of social obligation’ among individuals rather than as a result of top-down government legislation.

In justifying a gradualist approach to racial equality, conservative readings of the founding of American constitutionalism have privileged the primacy of legislative power during the era of Madison, but not thereafter. Often invoking Niebuhr, they have found room to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act only by defining its relationship with earlier constitutional ideals, redrawn from the late-eighteenth century. Unlike modern politicians, apparently, the founders were enlightened enough to instill the provisions of a colour-neutral constitutional framework. According to this analysis, by removing racial segregation the Civil Rights Act restored American constitutionalism without setting a precedent for further federal interventionism.

Race and the Niebuhrian template for federal activism after Obama

By describing the American founders of the late-eighteenth century as somehow enlightened in their approach to neutral representation, colour-blind conservatism has overlooked an important aspect of Niebuhr’s salient vision of American constitutional history, notwithstanding its frequent allusion to the theologian. Niebuhr chided liberal optimism for overestimating the capacity for government to create a race-neutral society. But he did not necessarily advocate opposition to all subsequent forms of government activism, including in the sphere of racial representation. It is likely that he would have objected to the association between his critique of liberalism and a rejection of government interventionism in the modern era; not least in the way that the legacies of the eighteenth-century American Founding and the twentieth-century Civil Rights movement have been appropriated.

It was precisely the intractability of racial distinction, according to Niebuhr, that required continued federal activity even after the legal dismantling of segregation; so as to channel ethnic tensions through representative mechanisms, rather than simply wishing them away. In his 1964 New Leader essay on the ‘struggle for justice’ Niebuhr wrote: ‘We are in for not only a long hard summer but for decades of social revolution.’ Portraying a continuous struggle between citizens and their governing authorities, he did not abjure the importance of federal activity altogether. Rather, citizens would continually seek to influence state and federal institutions from the bottom upwards. Those institutions would be pressured to incorporate a more equal struggle between competing racial actors; between those who continued to espouse their white privilege in tacit ways and those who sought to reassert African-American group interests.

Without concerted action to incorporate new ethnic groups into the governing process - even following monumental acts of legislation - white egoism would dominate the civic agenda. It would do so, according to Niebuhr, at the expense of a more complex counterpoise between competing ethnic identities. Understandably, modern conservative thinkers have tended to avoid these Niebuhrian subtleties in their opposition to perceived racial preferences large government schemes.                                                                                                        

In 1967, writing in his book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King followed Niebuhr in distinguishing between hope and the ‘unwarranted optimism concerning man… [that] leaned unconsciously toward self-righteousness’. As historian Ralph Luker has pointed out, Niebuhr and King both relied on a distinction between the optimism of Northern white liberal allies of the Civil Rights movement and the hope of its Southern African-American leadership. Their religious conception of hope knew ‘what the evidence says about human nature…that tomorrow is likely to be a troubled day; that there is little obvious reason to be optimistic.’ But it also knew ‘something greater…that there is a power that makes a way out of no way - a crucial distinction [from optimism].’

A radical and even interventionist public policy agenda can be supported by the Niebuhrian distinction between hope and mere optimism. Hope in the scope of government interventionism need not presuppose an entirely positive view of human nature from a moral perspective. In his discussion of Niebuhr, Obama made a similar observation in order to question conservative critiques of federal interventionism, including those that alluded to the theory of colour-blind government:

I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers…I take away the compelling ideas that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away… the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism’.

Like many civil rights leaders (and many second-term presidents) Obama is surely realizing the meaning of Niebuhr’s statement that new beginnings in history ‘are never quite as new as assumed, and never remain quite as pure as when they are new’. But like Niebuhr, he has not discounted the need to harness hope and change through government intervention and public policy initiatives – including those that target particular ethnic and urban communities.

Further Reading


James Madison, ‘Vices of the Political System of the United States (1787)’ in The Papers of James Madison, ed. William T. Hutchinson et al. (Chicago and London, 1962-77), Vol. 9: 357.

Reinhold Niebuhr, ‘Christian Faith and the Race Problem,’ Christianity and Society, Spring 1945; and ‘The Race Problem,’ Christianity and Society, Summer 1942.

Martin Luther King, Jr, ‘Reinhold Niebuhr’s Ethical Dualism,’ May 9, 1952.

David Frum, ‘Race and Republicans’, National Review Online, Wednesday, February 05, 2003.

Joseph Loconte, “Obama Contra Niebuhr”, The American, January 14, 2010.

David Brooks, ‘Obama, Gospel and Verse’, New York Times, April 26, 2007.

Liam Julian, ‘Niebuhr and Obama’, Policy Review, 154, Apr./May 2009. 

Cornel West, ‘The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society’, in David Batsone and Eduardo Mendieta, ed., The Good Citizen (New York, 1999), 5-12.

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