Thursday, October 24, 2013

America’s Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism. By Jim Wallis.

America’s Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism. By Jim Wallis. Sojourners, November 1987.

The Most Controversial Sentence I Ever Wrote. By Jim Wallis. Sojourners, October 24, 2013. Also at The Huffington Post.

12 Years a Slave: A Conversation on Race. Sojourners.

The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias: 12 Years a Slave Holds Nothing Back in Show of Suffering. By Manohla Dargis. New York Times, October 17, 2013.

What Really Became of Solomon Northup After His “12 Years a Slave?” By Mark Robichaux. Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2013.

Twelve Years a Slave. By Solomon Northup. New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1855. More editions here. Audio book here and here.

Wallis (Original Sin):

The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.

To make such a statement today is to be immediately accused of being rhetorical or, worse yet, of being “reminiscent of the ’60s.” The reaction is instructive and revealing. The historical record of how white Europeans conquered North America by destroying the native population and how they then built their new nation’s economy on the backs of kidnapped Africans who had been turned into chattel are facts that can hardly be denied. Yet to speak honestly of such historical facts is to be charged with being polemical or out of date. Why?
One reason is that racism is no longer a hot topic. After the brief “racial crisis” of the ’60s, white America, including many of those involved in the civil rights movement, has gone on to other concerns. Also, the legal victories of black Americans in that period, as far as most white Americans are concerned, have settled the issue and even left many asking, “What more do blacks want?”
Federal courts have recently interpreted civil rights legislation—originally designed to redress discrimination against black people—as applying to the grievances of whites who believe affirmative action programs have “gone too far.” In addition, popular racial attitudes have changed, attested to by the opinion polls and the increased number of black faces appearing in the world of sports, entertainment, the mass media, and even politics. After all, The Cosby Show is the highest-rated TV series in the country, and Jesse Jackson is running for president.
Indeed, in the two decades since the passage of momentous civil rights legislation, some things have changed and some things haven’t. What has changed is the personal racial attitudes of many white Americans and the opportunities for some black Americans to enter the middle levels of society. (The word “middle” is key here, insofar as blacks have yet to be allowed into the upper echelons and decision-making positions of business, the professions, the media, or even the fields of sports and entertainment where black “progress” has so often been celebrated.) Legal segregation has been lifted off the backs of black people with the consequent expansion of social interchange and voting rights, and that itself has led to changes in white attitudes.
What has not changed is the systematic and pervasive character of racism in the United States and the condition of life for the majority of black people. In fact, those conditions have gotten worse.
Racism originates in domination and provides the social rationale and philosophical justification for debasing, degrading, and doing violence to people on the basis of color. Many have pointed out how racism is sustained by both personal attitudes and structural forces. Racism can be brutally overt or invisibly institutional, or both. Its scope extends to every level and area of human psychology, society, and culture.
Prejudice may be a universal human sin, but racism is more than an inevitable consequence of human nature or social accident. Rather, racism is a system of oppression for a social purpose.
In the United States, the original purpose of racism was to justify slavery and its enormous economic benefit. The particular form of racism, inherited from the English to justify their own slave trade, was especially venal, for it defined the slave not merely as an unfortunate victim of bad circumstances, war, or social dislocation but rather as less than human, as a thing, an animal, a piece of property to be bought and sold, used and abused.
The slave did not have to be treated with any human consideration whatsoever. Even in the founding document of our nation, the famous constitutional compromise defined the slave as only three-fifths of a person. The professed high ideals of Anglo-Western society could exist side by side with the profitable institution of slavery only if the humanity of the slave was denied and disregarded.
The heart of racism was and is economic, though its roots and results are also deeply cultural, psychological, sexual, even religious, and, of course, political. Due to 200 years of brutal slavery and 100 more of legal segregation and discrimination, no area of the relationship between black and white people in the United States is free from the legacy of racism.
IN SPIRITUAL AND BIBLICAL terms, racism is a perverse sin that cuts to the core of the gospel message. Put simply, racism negates the reason for which Christ died—the reconciling work of the cross. It denies the purpose of the church: to bring together, in Christ, those who have been divided from one another, particularly in the early church's case, Jew and Gentile—a division based on race.
There is only one remedy for such a sin and that is repentance, which, if genuine, will always bear fruit in concrete forms of conversion, changed behavior, and reparation. While the United States may have changed in regard to some of its racial attitudes and allowed some of its black citizens into the middle class, white America has yet to recognize the extent of its racism—that we are and have always been a racist society—much less to repent of its racial sins. 

And because of that lack of repentance and, indeed, because of the economic, social, and political purposes still served by the oppression of black people, systematic racism continues to be pervasive in American life. While constantly denied by white social commentators and the media, evidence of the persistent and endemic character of American racism abounds.
. . . .
THE STRATEGIES FOR HOW black people must confront and finally overcome the ever-changing face of white racism in America must always originate within the black community itself. White allies have and can continue to play a significant role in the struggle against racism when black autonomy and leadership are sufficiently present to make possible a genuine partnership. But an even more important task for white Americans is to examine ourselves, our relationships, our institutions, and our society for the ugly plague of racism.
Whites in America must admit the reality and begin to operate on the assumption that theirs is a racist society. Positive individual attitudes are simply not enough, for, as we have seen, racism is more than just personal.
All white people in the United States have benefited from the structure of racism, whether or not they have ever committed a racist act, uttered a racist word, or had a racist thought (as unlikely as that is). Just as surely as blacks suffer in a white society because they are black, whites benefit because they are white. And if whites have profited from a racist structure, they must try to change it.
To benefit from domination is to be responsible for it. Merely to keep personally free of the taint of racist attitudes is both illusory and inadequate. Just to go along with a racist social structure, to accept the economic order as it is, just to do one's job within impersonal institutions is to participate in racism in the ’80s.
Racism has to do with the power to dominate and enforce oppression, and that power in America is in white hands. Therefore, while there are instances of black racial prejudice against whites in the United States today (often in reaction to white racism), there is no such thing as black racism. Black people in America do not have the power to enforce that prejudice.
White racism in white institutions must be eradicated by white people and not just black people. In fact, white racism is primarily a white responsibility.
We must not give in to the popular temptation to believe that racism existed mostly in the Old South or before the 1960s or, today, in South Africa. Neither can any of our other struggles against the arms race, war in Central America, hunger, homelessness, or sexism be separated from the reality of racism.
The church must, of course, get its own house in order. It is still riddled with racism and segregation. The exemplary role of the black church in the struggle against racism offers a sharp indictment to white churches, which still mostly reflect the racial structures around them.
The church still has the capacity to be the much-needed prophetic interrogater of a system that has always depended upon racial oppression. The gospel remains clear. The church still should and can be a spiritual and social community where the ugly barriers of race are finally torn down to reveal the possibilities of a different American future.

Wallis’s article is another left-wing diatribe against Jacksonian America as irredeemably racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic. A classic example of liberal exploitation of white guilt. While Wallis is right about the central role of white supremacy in much of American history, he indulges in left-wing demagoguery when he accuses all white Americans, simply by being white Americans, of perpetrating racism, exploiting minorities, and benefiting from structures of racial domination. He is obliviously to the desperate situation of the white Jacksonian working and middle classes. Wallis wrote this article in 1987. In 2010 he accused the Tea Party of racism, saying it was driven by “an undercurrent of white resentment.”