This book is as good a summary of the history and nature of racism as I have read. It is contemporary both in covering current events of racial violence and in using up-to-date terminology such as “white fragility” and “implicit racism,” terms necessary to understand cutting-edge thinking about this ancient American problem.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., pictured on the cover, where the author joined hundreds of others to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, serves as a metaphor throughout the book for a bridge to a new America where white people will be a minority. Will we cross the bridge to a peaceful, just society where our diversity is seen as a benefit and not as a threat? That is the author’s challenge.
A leading progressive evangelical pastor, Jim Wallis uses terms like sin, repentance, and redemption to discuss racism. He writes, “I believe this book’s title is very important. Racism is rooted in sin. . . . We can get to a better place only if we go to that morally deeper place. . . . [T]hat will take a spiritual and moral transformation. . . . Sin must be named, exposed, and understood before it can be repented of.” Only repentance makes redemption, or change, possible.
As someone not accustomed to using or hearing those words, I was not sure how I would respond to them. But I found that these words were just what was called for in describing racism, and furthermore, I think their use in this concept deepened my understanding of this rich vocabulary.
The book addresses many pertinent topics, including the history of the abuse of African Americans from slavery to their current over-incarceration (with some discussion of racism against other communities of color); the violent policing of black and brown people; immigration; the need for restorative justice modalities to address crimes; the continued separation of the races in housing, schools, and churches; implicit bias—the inevitable unconscious stereotypes we all have of what people different from us are like; and the nature of white privilege and its invisibility to those who are its beneficiaries.
The broad coverage of these topics was a strength of this book, which also covered most of them in enough depth that I gained welcome new insights. With regard to restorative justice, I thought that some concrete examples would have been helpful.
As a pastor, Wallis writes at length about the fact that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. He gives theological reasons why Christian churches must be integrated, and he cites several examples of churches that have successfully become multiracial, using the criterion of at least two ethnic or racial groups comprising at least 20 percent of the church’s congregants. At the same time, he recognizes the comfort blacks find in all-African American churches because they are “places of protection, survival, and sustenance.” But I think he doesn’t adequately acknowledge the importance of the black church to people who are often answerable to white people during the week and required to adopt white cultural habits in order to succeed in the white world. Black churches remain firmly in the African American tradition with black leadership, and these institutions offer a haven, a resting place. I fear it will only be when racial oppression outside the church disappears that blacks will consider joining multicultural churches in great numbers. I hope I am wrong, as churches can be a great place for people to get to know one another.
Much of what the author suggests for churches trying to diversify applies to silent Friends meetings as well. He makes clear that integrated churches need to reflect the cultures of all those who are part of them, and leaders must represent the diversity of the membership.
Congregations and meetings must make a firm commitment to diversity. This means becoming educated and joining the public struggle for racial justice. This is the right thing to do; furthermore, it will send the message to people of color that whites care about their well-being and are not blinded by white privilege. Color blindness serves only to pretend there is no problem with structural injustice, that it is all about individuals being nice, a trap that is easy for Friends to fall into.
If mostly white meetings do these things, people of color who might be attracted to silent meetings, who have a spiritual hunger that is better satisfied by silent worship than by other sorts of religious services, will find us.
I found America’s Original Sin to be relevant to Friends and to once again treat us to the thinking of a writer long committed to following Jesus by working for human rights and a just society.