The Common Good
March-April 1998

Why?

by Jim Wallis | March-April 1998

Thirty years after King's death, racism continues to rend the country.

Thirty years since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., America is still divided along racial lines. Why?

One-third of black Americans remain in poverty, many seemingly trapped in the social pathologies of the urban underclass. At the same time, the growing number and pro-

file of other racial minorities is dramatically changing the country's demographic landscape and enormously complicating America's increasingly colorful racial picture. People of color in America continue to disproportionately experience poverty.

But racism is more than poverty. In 1998, middle class African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans are all too able to tell personal stories of racial prejudice and discrimination. Most white people, on the other hand, seem tired of talking about racism, are opposed to affirmative action, and want to believe that their country has become a level playing field for all races. Almost no people of color believe that. Most significant, the United States is still a very segregated society—from residential patterns to cultural associations to church attendance. The number of stable, racially integrated neighborhoods across the country is still pitifully small. People of different races spend precious little non-work time together.

We have made undeniable progress since the end of legal segregation, but we have not come as far in the last 30 years as most expected. The hopes and dreams that followed the 1960s civil rights and voting rights legislation have yet to be fulfilled. America is still a racially divided society, where diversity is widely perceived as a greater cause for conflict than for celebration. Again, the question is why?

Clearly, we underestimated the problem. Since the 1960s, we have learned that racism goes far deeper than civil rights. Racism goes beyond mere prejudice and personal attitudes, but is rooted in institutional patterns and structural injustices. At the end of his life, Dr. King believed that poverty was the next front in the battle to overcome racism. Especially underestimated has been the impact and enduring legacy of the unique and particular institution of slavery in America.

But in addition to all of the above, and perhaps even more important, we have failed to perceive the fundamental spiritual and theological roots of racism in America. These surely include the historical, institutional, cultural, and psychic dimensions of racism but go much further and deeper.

In biblical terms, racism is a demon and an idol, a fallen principality and power that enslaves people and nations in its deadly grip. To be even more specific, it is the idolatry of "whiteness," the assumption of white privilege and supremacy, that has yet to be spiritually confronted in America and, especially, in the churches. Sojourners has previously described white racism as "America's original sin." America's continuing failure to repent meaningfully of that sin still confounds our efforts to overcome it.

PRESIDENT CLINTON has invited the nation to a new conversation on race. Despite the legitimate criticisms of the president's initiative, we still welcome it because almost any honest discussion of race is worth having in a nation that still would rather not talk about it. But the most important question is what the conversation should be about. The president's initiative on race has thus far has been mostly demographically driven—that is, the nation is becoming much more diverse and we will have to learn to get along. True enough. But will demographic realities finally be enough to change hearts, minds, and institutions?

Critics of the president's effort say talk is cheap unless followed up by action. That's also true, as is the criticism that any initiative on race will fail unless it deals with the fundamental issues of economic inequality. But is there more to do than educating, organizing, advocating, and changing policies? A more spiritual approach would suggest other kinds of action as well. In addition to the hard work of personal relationships, community building, and political and economic change, other responses may be required—such as confession, prayer, conversion, forgiveness, preaching, and even revival. We might even inquire into the ancient spiritual practices of exorcising demons when dealing with one so virulent as racism. William Stringfellow, as Bill Wylie-Kellermann points out in this issue, thought that a proper understanding of baptism was essential to defeating the evil of racism.

Because spiritual and political work should never be set against one another, the question becomes how to go deeply enough with the spiritual struggle to make the political battle more successful. Here is where the churches might make their best contribution to current initiatives on race. The surprising new zeal among some white evangelical groups to confront racism with spiritual power is a very welcome and encouraging sign. So is the growing awareness among many people, religious or not, that personal and social problems have spiritual roots.

Confronting the barriers of race, class, culture, and gender was perhaps the major social drama of the New Testament church. Overcoming those divisions was seen as a primary test of spiritual authenticity. If the churches would reclaim the call to "spiritual warfare"—this time against the principality and power of racism—how might the battle against racism be transformed? We might finally begin to estimate the enemy adequately.

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