Book Review: America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to the New America

by Jim Wallis

Who is Jim Wallis:  he is an evangelical pastor, Little League Baseball coach (the guy loves baseball), married to a pastor, father of two teenage boys, author of numerous books, and a man with a heart for the poor and an active mind working as a kind of lobbyist to convince Congress of the importance of overcoming poverty in America. His latest book is about the sin of racism and he writes, “The most controversial sentence I ever wrote was not about abortion, gay marriage, the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, elections, or anything to do with national or church politics. It was a statement about the founding of the United States. Here’s the sentence: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and the enslavement of yet another.”

Of course Pastor Wallis was speaking about the treatment of American Indians and African-Americans. Genocide and slavery have been called America’s “original sin”, hence the title of his latest book. Original sin is a theological term referring to humankind’s fall into the power of sin, our sinful natures, and reflected in the words of the Sunday confession, “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” When the term is transferred to common culture it means there is a intransigent problem in the country, the lingering legacy of slavery known as racism. Wallis writes, “And sin is the right word to use for racism…because it’s something that seeks to undermine the very creation of human beings as being equally valued, loved, and cared for in the eyes of God.”

Some may question if racism is such a problem today. Everyone would agree that racism was a scourge in the South in the “bad old days” of Jim Crow laws that mandated social and educational inferiority for African-Americans. But then came the Civil Rights legislation in the 1960’s and so ended such discrimination that even denied black citizens the right to vote. Wallis will speak about the difference between “explicit racism” and “implicit racial bias”. Explicit racism is easy to spot because it is known with degrading speech and the absurd ideas of certain groups that say the “white” race is just plain superior to all other races. Implicit racism is trickier because it involves an attitude of what is known as white privilege. He writes, “We still assume ‘whiteness’ in American society, in ways that are both implicit and explicit. White privilege is normal in American society. And it is the most normal thing in the experience of white Americans to expect privilege—even when we would not think to call it that. I would name white privilege as the actual practice of modern-day white supremacy.”

Wallis includes a chapter on a tough topic today and that is the relationship of  police serving in areas of predominantly African-American population. African Americans feel targeted by police which has led to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Others in our society, upset with the death of police officers want to respond with “Blue Lives Matter”. There is danger here of further racial division in our country with everyone saying their lives matter. I think the Black Lives Matter movement is not about black racism, but a plea to be heard and understood. Wallis does not place blame over violence with either the police or the black communities because the problem he feels is deeper. He writes, “Dramatic examples of inappropriate and excessive uses of force have created highly public incidents that focused the nation’s attention on policing issues. But this is not just, or mostly a problem with the police. What the incidents reveal is a broken criminal justice system more broadly and systematically….History tells us that poverty leads to crime. Where there is poverty, there will be crime, and when poverty is also reflective of racial discrimination, crime will be racially disproportionate. And policing will normally reflect these racial divisions and realities. So if we want to change crime, we obviously have to change society.”

So how can society change? Wallis used an old-fashioned word, namely repentance. Repentance is not to be stuck in the church, but action depending on the grace of guidance of God to bring change:  an end to poverty, the understanding that people of all colors and ethnicities are beloved children of God, and if we are driven by fear of the other it is time to truly get to know our fellow Americans who may be of different skin color.  Wallis wrote of a college professor speaking to a group of African-Americans. She asked them “How often have you given white people feedback about our inevitable and often unconscious racist patterns and had that gone well for you?” The people just laughed.  Then she asked “What would your daily life be like if you could just simply give us feedback, have us receive it graciously, reflect on it and work to change the behavior? What would that be like?” And one man of color looked at her and said, “It would be revolutionary.”

Wallis supplies a great deal of information about racism and white privilege alive and well in the U.S.A.  But the book is not all negative or hopeless. He ends the book with a challenge based on the words of Martin Luther King Jr. asking are we headed for chaos in the country or community; a segregated community or a caring community? Wallis write “For me, the most powerful metaphor for where we are going is crossing a bridge. Will we be willing and able to cross the bridge to a new America, from a majority white culture with minorities, to a majority of minorities society, with white people as one of the minorities? Can we find our way to a genuinely diverse society, racially and culturally, where diversity is seen as a strength rather than as a threat? Or are we headed for a conflicted future where minorities, including white, just have one collision after another with one another? Are we ready to cross that bridge, and how can we do it?” Wallis devotes a chapter with suggestions on how to make changes in our schools, communities, and churches. Racism may seem like a remote topic while living in a community that is predominantly white, and we may think racism is a problem for the inner city. But no matter where we live, hopefully we have the courage to examine our attitudes about race and learn more; Jim Wallis’ book offers a lot to learn and think about.