Racism as "the Nation's Crucial Sin": Theology and Derrick Bell


The Article probes a paradox that lies at the heart of the work of critical race scholar Derrick Bell. Bell claims on the one hand that racism is permanent, and yet on the other he argues that the fight against racism is both necessary and meaningful. Although Bell’s thesis of racism’s permanence has been criticized for rendering action for racial justice unavailing, the Article advances an understanding of Bell that supports and defends the integrity of his paradox. The Article draws upon the work of Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and Niebuhr’s paradox that social action is both necessary and meaningful despite the inextricable presence of human sin. The argument is that the dynamics of the relation between sin and action may illuminate the dynamics of the relation between racism and action. One need not necessarily agree with Niebuhr’s theology to find the lived experience he describes a potentially rich source of understanding for the paradox that Bell maintains.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Jurisprudence | Law and Society | Religion Law

Date of this Version

October 2003