Addressing multiple reports of a white police officer shooting an African American, such as in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Lauquan McDonald in Chicago, Jim Wallis—public theologian, political activist, and founding editor of Sojourners magazine, argues that the events are part of a legacy stretching back to slavery. His new book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America(Brazos, Jan.), not only tries to diagnose the underlying and systemic issues that are causing racial strife, but asks Americans to recognize what he calls their original sins — slavery and racism — before they can move forward together.
“We have to address our country’s racial injustice and the fundamental difference of opinion and perspective between white and black people about the criminal justice system, education, and economics,” Wallis toldPW. To build a bridge to a new America, Wallis says, white Christians have to listen and learn, believe African Americans' stories, atone for their part in the violence and the injustice, and take up the call to pursue racial justice. “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents would have less to fear for their children and they wouldn’t have to have ‘the Talk’ anymore,” said Wallis.
In the book, Wallis points out that the majority of white Americans see the shootings and violence as isolated incidents, while most African Americans see them as part of their daily day-to-day lives. To make his point, the author includes his personal experience as a young man meeting Butch—a fellow custodian in Detroit, in America's Original Sin. He recalls eating dinner with Butch’s family and hearing about “the Talk” in which African American parents told their children to avoid police officers if they were ever lost. For Wallis, the advice from his parents was the exact opposite. “That difference of perspective told me I had indeed grown up in a different world,” Wallis told PW.
Wallis also contends that this type of white privilege has not gone away, and furthermore, it is a legacy of white supremacy. Another example in the book comes from esteemed lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson, an African American who wrote the foreword to the book. Sharing his experience of pulling up in front of his own home in Atlanta after a long day and taking a pause to listen to music before heading inside, Stevenson explained how he was violently confronted by a police officer who did not believe it was his home. Stevenson avoided arrest, but only after being patted down. As the officer walked away, he said, “You’re lucky this time.” This type of story, Wallis told PW, is what white people need to hear about, understand, and contest.
The question now, said the author, is how white people—specifically white Christians—will react to this call to action. “The metric will not be the number of books sold, but how white people and white Christians will respond,” he said.