America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America

By: Jim Wallis

Star Rating:



Spoiler Disclaimer


In November 1987, author Jim Wallis, wrote and published a controversial magazine article entitled, "America's Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism" in which he posited that America was founded upon a legacy of white privilege through the near genocide of one race and the enslavement of another. Since then much has changed, but much has also stayed the same. While it isn't as socially acceptable as it once was to be overtly racist, racism has never truly been eradicated in America. In his latest book, Rev. Wallis seeks to explore the origins of racism in America and how it presents itself today through continued segregation, whether intentional or not, police violence against persons of color, an unfair justice system that favors whites, a severely broken immigration system, and more. Then he presents a path forward for building a bridge to a brighter future in which all races could potentially find reconciliation.


I've been following Jim Wallis for a number of years now, mostly through his work with the religious organization, Sojourners. He's been an inspiring figure to me who has helped me to see my own faith in a different way. Years ago, I picked up his book God's Politics, although I admittedly never finished it due to not having a lot of time to read back then. When I saw this new book had just been released, I was eager to read it. I'm intrigued by social issues and with the deaths of a number of African Americans at the hands of police topping news stories of late, I felt that it was a very timely subject to explore. As fate would have it, my church book club agreed, and so America's Original Sin became our latest group read.

Some of the other group members expressed that it wasn't the easiest read and could be a little slow at times. They seemed to feel that a more personal narrative might have helped to give it more flavor, and while I agree on some level, I still very much liked the book and found it to be quite thought-provoking. The title and premise of the book is rooted in the following statement that Jim Wallis made in a Sojourners magazine article back in 1987: "The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another." He said it was the most controversial statement he's ever made and I can understand to some extent why it was so provocative. At the same time, though, it's a nearly impossible statement to refute for anyone who genuinely understands history. And of course, this is what Rev. Wallis posits is America's original sin.

I liked how he made racism a faith issue and one in which more churches and religious institutions need to become involved and help eradicate. After all, if we really mean it when we say that we're all children of God, equal in His eyes, then we need to put that faith into action. One of Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous quotes is: "I am [ashamed] and appalled that eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America." And that sadly is true. Granted Rev. Wallis discusses how some faith communities are becoming more multi-cultural and statistics show that across the country there has been improvements in church integration, but by and large, churches are still pretty segregated. I know this, because the churches of which I've been a part throughout my lifetime have been predominantly white with very few, if any, minorities involved. More than fifty years after the civil rights movement, I find that very sad indeed.

Some readers might be tempted to pass this book by, thinking, "I'm not racist, so I don't need this." And that's where they would be wrong. Social science has proven that we all carry intrinsic biases. Some explicit biases we can see played out in the news with acts of violence, ugly words, and other overt forms of racial discrimination. Then there are implicit biases that all of us have. We may not take issue with those of another race, but how many of us avoid certain areas of town or cross the street to avoid someone we perceive as unsafe due to their skin being a different color. These biases may be subconsciously performed and not readily apparent to us as racism, but we need to be aware that they exist, if we're to overcome our prejudices. As Rev. Wallis suggests, we are more likely to achieve that with intentional exposure to the people we perceive as "different" or "other." And intentional means just that, not merely waiting or hoping to interact with those people through work, church or other public spaces, because that simply isn't going to happen organically, at least not to the degree we need in order to achieve true integration.

The author presents what I felt was a common sense approach to overcoming all the discriminatory problems that lead to more intense racial conflicts. It involves some of that intentional integration of which I was talking in many areas of our lives: our churches, sports, and schools, as well as geographic integration that brings us together with our neighbors from other races. He also supports comprehensive immigration reform as well as comprehensive policing and criminal justice reforms. When persons of color are dying at the hands of police at a much higher rate than whites, we have a problem. When rates of drug use and trafficking are pretty equal across the racial divide, but the majority of those locked up for these offenses are persons of color, there is yet another problems that needs attention. We also need to listen to and believe the stories of those who are experiencing the worst of the prejudice and racial inequalities, because it is through putting a human face on this suffering that we will truly be able to empathize.

Rev. Wallis covered a lot of ground in this book and it's overall message is one that I feel more people need to take to heart. But one of the strongest messages I took away from it is that for people of faith, racism is a sin of which we need to repent - even if we don't consider ourselves racist - in order to move forward into a better tomorrow. The author cited many Biblical passages that show that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God. Even if you aren't a person of faith, our country's Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal" as well. But until Caucasian Americans die to our notions of white privilege, we can't truly be one with our brothers and sisters of color. I hope that many readers will pick up this book with an open mind and heart, ready to take a hard look at themselves and what they might be doing to perpetuate racial inequality, be inspired to make changes that will help others, and then cross that bridge to a new, better, and more integrated America.

Note: This book contains one instance of the use of the derogatory "n" word for African Americans in a direct quote from a racist individual, which may offend some readers.


Jim Wallis @ Sojourners

Jim Wallis @ GoodReads