America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and Bridge to a New America (2017) by Rev. Jim Wallis is a great contribution to our current understanding of racism in what remains a very toxic topic. Wallis’ stature as an evangelical leader and editor of” Sojourners” magazine lends gravitas to his honest and very readable examination of racism in America.
“As the dominant religion in the United States, Christianity is directly implicated when we Christians fail to speak more honestly about the legacy of racial inequality” (xv). Wallis is drawing our attention as a country and calling Christians to task. I have heard Catholics say, “Why are the Bishops writing a pastoral letter on racism?” as if racism was not part of our past. The recent story of religious orders such as the Jesuits as Georgetown owning slaves should be enough to justify this effort.
Wallis uses recent examples of law enforcement interactions as cause for concern. “The facts in specific cases are often in great dispute. But the reality that young black men and women are treated differently than are young white men and women by our law enforcement system is beyond dispute” (5). I’m not sure anyone would disagree with this statement. My guess is that the majority of whites in this country would justify this different treatment as reasonable. I think back to Jesse Jackson’s quote: “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps…then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
My concern is that we’ve grown used to this different treatment. We’ve rationalized it and accepted it. After all, African-Americans represent 31 percent of deaths by law enforcement officers while making up only 13 percent of the population (14). The statistics about the rate of incarceration and disproportionate number of African-Americans is jarring. Wallis aptly examines all the sociological issues surrounding race and his treatment is readable and interesting.
The most valuable insight of the book is worth repeating here.
“One of the biggest obstacles to honest, open communication between white people and people of color on the difficult issues of race is the reality that due to the structural forces of racism and white privilege, the experience of people of color is very different from the experience of white people. White people tend to see racism as an individual issue, about good and bad behavior by moral or immoral people” (91).
In other words, whites tend to deflect conversations about institutional racism, framing discussions about racism as personal choices. “I’m not a racist,” they might say, or “I am friendly to people of all colors.” When the possibility to examine institutional racism such as the high rates of incarceration, whites change the subject to a personal issue.
Here is a link to other reviews and information about the book. I also highly recommend Shaka Shenghor’s Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison (2013) which is a searing memoir of life on the streets and in prison.