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Reviewing the New Jim Wallis Book: “America’s Original Sin – Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America”

January 20, 2016

I just finished reading Jim Wallis’s new and timely book, America’s Original Sin – Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America.
Although White Christians and churches are the primary focus of this book, it is just as pertinent to a wider audience. The issue of racism permeates all the issues of our times: education, prisons, law enforcement, immigration, and so much more. Wallis illustrates this with poignant personal experiences and current racial instances in Ferguson and Baltimore which reflect both personal and systemic racism.
Wallis lays out the framework for people of faith – we are all created in God’s image and that makes us equal. America’s founding, built on the lives and land of Native Americans and slavery of blacks, is steeped in racism; natives and black slaves were considered three-fifth a human. (Native Americans would also point to the Papal Bull as a global foundational document institutionalizing racism, a document that even today has yet to be rescinded.) The Founding Fathers established a white society, a racism rested in white privilege. This systemic “privilege” disproportionately punishes blacks and is readily and unquestioningly accepted by white people. We Caucasians should rightfully be called European Americans, not white people.
“If White Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents wouldn’t have to fear for their children” says Wallis, and calls on white people to take responsibility for having accepted racist systems and make a change.
I have lived, worked and worshipped in a predominately African-American low-income community for the last fifty years. I, like so many well-intentioned white people, could say “I’m not a racist. My ancestors came as immigrants. I am trying to combat racism.” But Wallis clearly points out in a chapter called “Dying to Whiteness”, studies show that “implicit bias” is an automatic and unconscious process that permeates our society. The very systems of our society are inherently racist, built in white supremacy. Look at the prison and justice system, as so clearly described by Michele Alexander in The New Jim Crow.
Wallis calls us to repentance, meaning to “stop, make a radical turnaround and take an entirely new path”. And repentance requires action; it is hard work. Identifying and naming the sin of racism is the first step. Racism is a sin against God, against young black men and women, against fairness and justice in our law enforcement system. All human beings are created in God’s image, not just some of them. This applies to blacks, Arabs, Native Americans… all.
Wallis’s call to action includes recognizing, acknowledging, and in humility, “staying at the table” to listen to the personal stories and insights, to face racism. He applauds the emergence of the Black Lives Matter “leader-full” (rather the leaderless) movement which is “in our face” and pushing us into acknowledgement of the racism of systems. So rather than dispute, walk away from these uncomfortable situations, we are called to action, to stay at the table, to walk alongside the new leadership, to work with our religious institutions and groups to help change the racist system.
The author, despite the honesty of confronting the racism, points to hopeful opportunities we all have. We need to make concrete commitments to racial healing (a positive way to describe racial justice). Another is to work with others to change the school-to-prison pipeline, seeking alternatives to mass incarceration such as restorative justice efforts. Welcome the stranger, ensure quality education for all, also important focus for action. There is a moral and practical urgency for fixing these broken systems.
One black evangelical leader “wondered whether his white evangelical colleagues who still hold the trump cards will ever be willing to give them—-purse strings and the decision-making power.” We whites will need to give up our recognized and unrecognized privilege and power. Where do we go from here? Our nation is in a major transition from a majority white country to a majority of racial minorities. Some progress is being made. For example, there are more multi-racial churches now, but still a pitiful 13.7%. We need to intentionally take steps, use tools available, seek out diverse settings for action, change the geography of neighborhoods. The “fierce urgency of now” calls us to walk even while we talk.