Racism: America's Original Sin
[This is adapted from an earlier version of the article "America's Original Sin," which appeared in the November 1987 issue of Sojourners and remains relevant today.—The Editors]
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 Yet to speak honestly of such historical facts is to be charged with being polemical or out of date.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.
Indeed, in the 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.
All this has especially affected black youth, whose rate of unemployment has climbed above 50 percent. The very human meaning to such grim statistics can be seen in the faces of the kids in my inner-city neighborhood. They know they have no job, no place, no future, and therefore no real stake in this country. As one commentator has put it, society has ceased to be a society for them. Alcohol, drugs, poverty, family disintegration, crime, and jail have replaced aspirations for a decent life and a hopeful future.
It is the economy itself that now enforces the brutal oppression of racism, and it happens, of course, invisibly and impersonally. In the changing capitalist order, manufacturing jobs are lost to cheaper labor markets in the Third World or to automation while farm labor becomes extinct; both historically have been important to black survival. In the new "high-tech" world and "service economy," almost the only jobs available are at places like McDonalds.
Increasingly, we see a two-tiered economy emerging: one a highly lucrative level of technicians and professionals who operate the system, and the other an impoverished sector of unemployed, underemployed, and unskilled labor from which the work of servicing the system can be done. That blacks are disproportionately consigned to the lowest economic tier is an indisputable proof of racism. The existence of a vast black underclass, inhabiting the inner cities of our nation, is a testimony to the versatility of white racism decades after legal segregation was officially outlawed.
THE PAIN OF ECONOMIC marginalization is made worse by the growing class distinctions within the black community itself. Middle-class blacks have further distanced themselves from the poor black population. Never has the class and cultural split in the black community been so great. In Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and other cities, a black elite prospers and lives an entirely different social existence, not in proximity to but in full view of an increasingly resentful and angry black underclass.
In Washington, D.C., subway routes follow class and racial lines, carrying middle-class commuters around downtown, through gentrified areas of the city, and out into the suburbs—avoiding black ghettos. The buses running along the affluent white and black "gold coast" of 16th Street are new and air-conditioned, while just two blocks away, old, hot, and broken-down buses run along the infamous 14th Street corridor through a major black ghetto. All this exists under a black city government.
To be fair, the increase in black political power over municipal governments has given black political leaders all the problems of modern urban life, including inadequate city budgets, without any real power or leverage to change the national policies and priorities that create the problems in the first place. Nevertheless, transcending the growing barriers between the relatively affluent middle class and the impoverished underclass is one of the most important and problematic challenges facing the black community.
The cold economic savagery of racism has led to further declines in every area of the quality of life in the black community—health, infant mortality, family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, and crime. The majority of black children are now born to single mothers; a primary cause of death for young black men today is homicide; and nearly half of all prison inmates in the United States now are black males.
Despite landmark court decisions and civil rights legislation, two-thirds of black Americans still suffer from education and housing that is both segregated and inferior. Such conditions, along with diminishing social services, lead to despair, massive substance abuse, and criminality, and the fact that this reality is still surprising or incomprehensible to many white Americans raises the question of how much racial attitudes have really changed.
The connection of racism to U.S. militarism should, by now, be painfully clear. First, increased military spending causes cuts in social services to the victims of the system who are disproportionately people of color. Second, the military definition of national security puts a prior claim on vast material, scientific, and human resources that could otherwise be directed toward achieving justice, which then is proclaimed as not being a practical financial option. Third, lacking other educational and job opportunities, racial minorities are herded into dehumanizing military service in disproportionate numbers and then assigned to combat units. And finally, young black men from the ghetto face the defined enemies of the United States on the field of battle, usually other people of color from the Third World, where they kill and are killed.
The failure of the mostly white, middle-class peace movement in the United States to make such connections and enter into a vital political partnership with oppressed racial minorities is a primary reason for the ineffectiveness of that movement. Even in the peace movement, racism becomes a debilitating force that robs us of opportunities to work toward a more just and peaceful nation.
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.
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. Neither can any of our other struggles against 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.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. This is adapted from an earlier version of the article "America's Original Sin," which appeared in the November 1987 issue of Sojourners.
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