“Racism is in the air we breathe and the water that we drink."
Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization, talked about racism, religion and his latest book, “America’s Original Sin,” during a recent program at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta.
Close to 200 people attended the Feb. 9 program. It marked the third time Wallis, who has written 12 books, has spoken at the Carter Library. Wallis “puts what’s happening today in a sense of what we need to do about it,” said Tony Clark of the library.
Wallis said racism has its roots in a decision by America’s founders to create an “economic resource to build this new nation that would turn kidnapped Africans into chattel property."
A few groups – such at the Quakers – declared slavery was at odds with their faith, but the society as a whole accepted the notice of dark-skinned people as lesser. That decision – despite the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement – continues to have reverberations.
He noted the remark of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., who said he felt he was “still treated like three-fifth of a person" – a reference to legal terms that counted slaves in the South in antebellum times as three-fifths of a person.
“Politics hasn’t cleansed us of this sin," Wallis said. What is needed is repentance by white Americans.
Repentance “doesn’t just mean saying you’re sorry,” Wallis said. “It means turning around and going in a whole different direction."
Referring to the “black lives matter” movement and the criticism it has gotten, Wallis said that in American society it seems black lives do not matter as much as other lives.
“I say in the book that Ferguson is a parable, Baltimore is a parable. I think Flint is becoming another parable,” he said. “We have to go back to this notion of original sin at the beginning of this nation."
Slavery has a long history. In Roman times, Greek slaves tutored the children of the elite. “They never said the tutors of their children were less than human,” Wallis noted.
“It was our Christian faith that said we can’t do this to people – so we said they’re not really people,” he explained.
Wallis has been traveling the country since “America’s Original Sin” was released. The conversations at each stop “have been very intergenerational,” he said, involving people of different races and backgrounds.
The role of race in America is “a conversation the country really wants to have," he said. “These are hard conversations, but they are hard conversations we are able to have."
Like “black lives matter,” the term “white privilege” stirs up angst. White privilege, Wallis said, is real. He pointed to himself.
“I am a white baby boomer. I was the beneficiary of the biggest Affirmative Action program in the nation’s history.” He said his father used veterans benefits to get an education and a Federal Housing Administration program to buy a home.
“White veterans got that, but back veterans didn’t get that," Wallis said. “White privilege is just the legacy of white supremacy."
The issues surrounding race are systemic. Wallis talked about coaching Little League baseball for 22 years.
“Every black player I’ve ever coached had his dad or mom have a talk with him. They’ve all had ‘the talk.’ Not just low income black families but some of the most successful lawyers in D.C.," he said.
“The talk” is about how to respond if stopped by police or in another situation that could turn violent or deadly.
“Until white parents get concerned about the talk that black parents of their kids’ teammates have to have,” Wallis said, there is not going to be much change. “It’s got to get personal, I think, for those of us who are white."
He said young while men are often praised as impressive or strong, while black males of similar age and physique are seen as dangerous.
“This has got to get personal and systemic at the same time," Wallis said.
It is also time for the race conversation to move into churches. The strongest reaction from anything in “American’s Original Sin” has been this line: “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents would have less to fear for their children.”
“It’s an idol. Idols separate us from God. This idol of whiteness has separated us from God,” Wallis said. White Americans must move past the notion that racism is “a problem other people have that we can be helpful with.”
The way race has been framed in America “has made us not understand who we are and who God is," Wallis said.
By the middle of the current century, the United States will no longer be a white majority nation but “a majority of minorities." Wallis said this is already true in Los Angeles, but not in places like New Hampshire.
“That’s what’s behind Donald Trump. That was behind the hatred of Barack Obama — a personal hatred of Barack Obama because he represents where we need to be going as a nation,” Wallis said. “That’s underneath American politics now."
Wallis said “Make America great again” is code for “Make American white again.”
Wallis said “the way young people feel about it is an encouragement to me. He added, “A whole new generation is wanting to build this bridge.”
Wallis said pastors often ask him what they can do about the race problem. “We have to love our people enough to preach the gospel,” he said. The church must choose whether to be “a segregated church or a beloved community," he said.
“Racial ghettos don’t happen by accident. It’s policy," he said.
He said it will take intentionality to build multi-racial churches, but he said that is the model the Scripture teaches. “Multiracial faith communities are not really admirable. They are expected,” Wallis said.
“This doesn’t seem possible, but our faith says it must be possible,” Wallis said.
White Americans have been “living with illusions for such a long time” that it will take determination and grit to build “what could be a very exciting bridge to a new America,” Wallis said. “We’ve got to get our souls back. We’ve got to have relationships with black brothers and sisters to get our souls back."