The Thing About Racial Justice: We Need Proximity

I think that there is a problem in how we talk about racial justice. For my conservative friends – and for my conservative side: really reflect. Have you gone to a protest and been there bodily alongside people grieving another death of a Black person? Have you worked alongside people who speak Spanish as their first language in a restaurant kitchen? Have you taught Asian American students in poverty who don’t fit into the stereotype of the model minority? Have you mentored Middle Eastern children who wore the same thing every day because they are refugees?

I am attending a Bible study at a predominantly Black church on Black liberation theologian James H. Cone’s (1938-2018) book The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2013). There was a chapter about Reinhold Niebuhr, a white theologian wrote a generation before Cone. Cone doesn’t start out with the good parts of Niebuhr (1892-1971, who inspired Dr. King and Barack Obama, and many, many others). He talks about how he compromised in his witness because he didn’t interact with poor Blacks and he didn’t stand in solidarity with them. He focused on class and not on race. He wrote about justice and did not stand up against lynching.

Cone also talks about some of the positives about Niebuhr, but his enthusiasm for the man is dimmed, and he analyzes an interview that featured Niebuhr and James Baldwin (1924-1987). Niebuhr did not speak with the passion that Cone would have wanted and he analyzes the interview at length. I read this in preparation for the Bible study and thought, well, not everyone can be a radical Black theologian, especially not if you’re white. I get that Niebuhr fell short, but he did provide helpful frameworks for social justice work. These frameworks are still valuable.

Cone then talks about Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). Bonhoeffer spent ample time with the Black community during his time at Union Theological Seminary (1930-31) and he worshipped and attended Bible studies with Black folks often. Cone even writes about how white peers tried to pressure Bonhoeffer not to get so involved. They were concerned he was taking the Black cause too seriously.

Bonhoeffer went off and ended up being a martyr for his witness in solidarity with the Jews during WWII. Niebuhr stayed comfortable. What does this say to us? What’s the message?

This: as theologians, educators, and practitioners of justice, if we aren’t proximate to the pain and suffering with them, then we are causing harm and leading to proximate justice. Niebuhr believed in moral suasion; that you could talk people out of racism. But it’s not enough because it’s not getting people to take a stand. You can’t urge people to take a stand against white supremacy, as exemplified in the presidency of Donald Trump, without also taking a stand yourself. Niebuhr wrote against racism, but never acted against it in any action other than writing.

What is the function of conservative writing about race and racism? It is actively non-solidarity. It has an advantage in that it’s not tribalistic and doesn’t promote division. But if it weren’t for the progressive writing about race and racism, then white supremacy would take hold and there would be no respect for Black conservatives. Black people would lose the ability to breathe. Even conservative Blacks.

When I read Cone’s words on Niebuhr in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, I thought, of course, as a self-proclaimed radical, Cone is dissatisfied with Niebuhr and his Christian realism. But then, worshipping with the Black community, I saw their reaction to Niebuhr. One woman said she was angry, another that she cried throughout the reading, and others were just depressed by Niebuhr’s lack of real witness, even when writing as a progressive and about race specifically.

Suddenly, I understood why cross-racial friendships, with people who are suffering due to racial oppression and poverty, are essential for those of us who write about and study race. It made me glad that I wrote about equity while substitute teaching in the local school district, where 80 languages are spoken. And it made me want to do better. I wish I had worshipped at the Black church while teaching Black children. I tried my best, but my best try would have been still better had I worshipped in solidarity.

Published by Seahurst Wellness and Education Center

I’m a skill-building, proficiency-obsessed tutor and consultant who puts relationships first. I am also a certificated teacher with over a decade of classroom experience. Everything I do is geared to facilitate students’ familial and scholarly wellness and their sense of meaningful contribution to society..

2 thoughts on “The Thing About Racial Justice: We Need Proximity

  1. Hey there again. I agree wholeheartedly with the title; we do indeed need to actively communicate with and spend time with people who have different viewpoints about race. However, I don’t think it would be appropriate or enjoyable for me to attend a protest with aims that are diametrically opposed to my own. Not diametrically opposed because I don’t want justice, but because I think it already exists. It would put me in the awkward position of having to choose between pretending to support something I view largely as delusion, or to seem uncaring at an inappropriate time.

    I have had in-depth conversations with all of my black friends about this topic, however.

    As for your other 3 examples, I have never worked in a kitchen, as a teacher or as a mentor in any capacity. I have lived in racially diverse areas and been roommates with both Filipino immigrants and Cambodian refugees. They make more money than I do.

    I’m not familiar with Cone, but I also agree that we should all stand up to racial injustice should it occur. I AM very familiar with James Baldwin. I’ve watched his dismantling of William F. Buckley in their 1965 debate many times (despite the fact that Buckley had an easy case to make).

    You go on to call Trump’s presidency exemplary of white supremacy. I’ve heard that repeated but never with any evidence. This is a presidency that actively courted the black vote by advancing HBCU funding, signed the First Step Act, Opportunity Zones, and bragged about Housing and Employment gains. He’s also made appearances with and reached out to prominent black people in different walks of life. Politics or not, I don’t see any white supremacy here.

    I don’t think it’s fair to call conservative writing “actively non-solidarity.” It’s just a disagreement with the left’s viewpoint on race. I would hope that the left’s viewpoint is not simply solidarity, but actually ideologically principled. There is an important question about intellectual honesty to be asked if solidarity is the stated reason why we should support “racial justice” rather than a belief it is needed.

    As an aside, my grandmother intentionally moved to a predominantly black neighborhood in the early 70’s because she believe strongly in racial justice. But I believe the only major problem left to be overcome is crippling belief that success is in any way hampered by something called “white supremacy.”


  2. The evidence of Trump’s white supremacy was his retweeting of white supremacist groups, not denouncing white supremacist groups during the debate but rather telling them to stand down and stand by, calling Mexicans rapists and drug dealers… Maybe I’ll write a post about it soon.


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