Editor's note: The following is the foreword from Jim Wallis' new book America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Order your copy here.
Late one night several years ago, I was getting out of my car on an empty midtown Atlanta street when a man standing fifteen feet away pointed a gun at me and threatened to “blow my head off.” I had just moved to the neighborhood, which I didn’t consider to be a high-crime area. Panicked thoughts raced through my mind as the threat was repeated. I quickly realized that my first instinct to run was misguided and dangerous, so I fearfully raised my hands in helpless, terrifying submission to the barrel of a handgun. I tried to stay calm and begged the man not to shoot me, repeating over and over again, “It’s alright, it’s okay.”
As a young attorney working on criminal cases, I knew that my survival required careful, strategic thinking. I had to stay calm. I’d just returned home from my office with a car filled with legal papers, but I knew the man holding the gun wasn’t targeting me because he thought I was a young professional. A young, bearded black man dressed casually in jeans, I didn’t look like a lawyer with a Harvard Law School degree to most people; I just looked like a black man in America. I had spent much of my life in the church. I graduated from a Christian college and was steeped in Dr. King’s teachings of nonviolence, but none of that mattered to the Atlanta police officer threatening to kill me. To that officer, I looked like a criminal, dangerous and guilty.
People of color in the United States, particularly young black men, are burdened with a presumption of guilt and dangerousness. Some version of what happened to me has been unfairly experienced by hundreds of thousands of black and brown people throughout this country. As a consequence of our nation’s historical failure to address the legacy of racial inequality, the presumption of guilt and the racial narrative that created it have significantly shaped every institution in American society, especially our criminal justice system.
While the mainstream church has been largely silent or worse, our nation has rationalized racial injustice ever since we first ignored the claims and rights of Native people, who were subjected to genocide and forced displacement.
Millions of African people were brought to America in chains, enslaved by a narrative of racial difference that was crafted to justify captivity and domination. Involuntary servitude was banned by the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, but nothing was done to confront the ideology of white supremacy. Slavery didn’t end in 1865; it just evolved. Until the 1950s, thousands of black people were routinely lynched in acts of racial terror, often while many in the white community stood by and cheered. Throughout much of the twentieth century, African Americans were marginalized by racial segregation and silenced by humiliating Jim Crow laws that denied basic economic, social, and political rights.
The country made progress dismantling the most obvious forms of racial bigotry in the 1960s, but we refused to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation. Consequently, new forms of racial subordination have emerged. The complicity of the church continues to haunt us and undermine the credibility of too many faith leaders.
We are currently in an era of mass incarceration and excessive punishment in which the politics of fear and anger reinforce the narrative of racial difference. We imprison people of color at record levels by making up new crimes, which are disproportionately enforced against those who are black or brown. We are the nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, a phenomenon that is inexorably linked to our history of racial inequality.
The Justice Department projects that one in three black males born in the twenty-first century is expected to go to jail or prison at some point during his lifetime. Only in a country where we have learned to tolerate evidence of racial injustice would this be seen as something other than a national crisis.
That night in Atlanta, I was sitting in front of my apartment, in my parked, beat-up Honda Civic for ten or fifteen minutes listening to music after a long day of work. I had apparently attracted someone’s attention simply by sitting in the car too long, and the police were summoned. Getting out of my car to explain to the police officer that this was my home and that everything was okay is what prompted him to pull his weapon and threaten to shoot me. Having drawn his weapon, the officer and his partner justified their overreaction by dramatizing their fears and suspicions about me. They threw me on the back of the vehicle, searched my car illegally, and kept me on the street for nearly fifteen humiliating minutes while neighbors got a look at the dangerous black man in their midst. When no crime could be discovered, I was told by the police officers to consider myself lucky. Although it was said as a taunt and threat, they were right: I was lucky; I survived. Sometimes the presumption of guilt results in young black men being killed.
From Ferguson, Missouri, to Charleston, South Carolina, communities are suffering the lethal consequences of our collective silence about racial injustice. The church should be a source of truth in a nation that has lost its way. As the dominant religion in the United States, Christianity is directly implicated when we Christians fail to speak more honestly about the legacy of racial inequality. Evangelicals, in particular, have much to overcome, given our tolerance of racial bias over the years.
This is a critically important time, when leaders of faith need to address issues of race more thoughtfully, prayerfully, and courageously. As the visionary and prophetic leader of Sojourners, Jim Wallis has been speaking truth to power for decades. This new work is timely, urgent, and necessary.
We expect too little of law enforcement officials when we fail to hold them accountable for the misjudgments represented by the shooting deaths of so many unarmed people of color. We expect too little of the church when we accept its silence in the face of these tragedies.
We expect too much of the poor and people of color, who have carried the burden of presumptive dangerousness for far too long. We expect too much of the marginalized and menaced when we ask them to stay calm and quiet in the face of persistent threats and abuse created by our history of racial inequality.
No historic presidential election, no athlete or entertainer’s success, no silent tolerance of one another is enough to create the truth and reconciliation needed to eliminate racial inequality or the presumption of guilt. We’re going to have to collectively acknowledge our failures at dealing with racial bias. People of faith are going to have to raise their voices and take action. Reading this extraordinary new work by Jim Wallis is a very good place to start.