Racism at our Core: The Divided United States

I have a terrible habit of accumulating books that sit far too long on the bookshelf before getting cracked open. One of them currently is America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America, by evangelical Christian author Jim Wallis.

Despite not having read a word of this book yet, the title has spent a lot of time rolling around my mind. I think of it often. I chew on it the way others might chew on gum or perhaps a mantra. I take the expression of racism as America’s original sin and apply it like a yardstick to other issues I am contemplating to see if it fits. What I have found has changed my perspective profoundly.

Even if I never end up reading a single word from this book, it will still have had a significant impact on me.

At first, I thought the title was an exaggeration. Surely racism is one of many sins in this country, but calling it our “original sin” seemed like an overreach. After all, we have no shortage of sins in the USA. I used to think racism was an issue that only impacted certain racial and ethnic groups, and I reasoned that no matter how bad those issues might be for those groups, other issues were more important simply because they impacted all of society in a broader way—militarism and poverty being two glaring examples. Well, I am here to admit that I was quite wrong in this! The more I delve into different social issues, the more I see the unmistakable footprint of racism underneath almost all of them. Contrary to my earlier thoughts, racism actually involves and impacts all of us. It’s just everywhere and it’s ugly.

In short, Jim Wallis is right.

Layer upon Layer of Racism

The US is built with layer upon layer of racism. The most obvious example is that the US was populated mostly by western Europeans who massacred their way across the frontier, wiping out whole cultures of people along the way. Native peoples who had built robust communities and civilizations were almost completely eradicated from the face of the earth, all so that European settlers could steal their land. Many settlers were convinced God has granted them this land and the people who were already there were treated like some kind of nuisance. Settlers rarely regarded native people as equal persons with rights and innate dignity bestowed on them by their Creator.

Then those European settlers brought in Africans who were kept in the cruelest form of chattel slavery for a period of over 250 years (longer if you include slavery in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas). Each was legally regarded as only 3/5 of a person. After they were “freed,” African Americans were still subjected to harsh treatment and denied opportunities through strict segregation (which was not, to say the least, a kind way to treat people who had been so terribly brutalized through slavery). Full freedom and inclusion for African Americans has still not been attained by a long shot, especially with current oppression in the form of mass incarceration.

As horrific as both of those are, racism doesn’t stop there. No, it seeps into the cracks and crevices of life in America in even more sinister ways, in places where you might not think to find it.

Waves of immigrants fought for jobs, status and opportunities by trying to push down successive waves of immigrants from other races, cultures and religions. Competition between the racial, religious and ethnic groups was built into the fabric of America this way. Poor whites were pitted against poor blacks as a way to divide and conquer. The repercussions of this go on to this day. It’s deeply ingrained in us. We’ve been trained to see different groups as threats and competitors. We’ve been trained to see different groups as, well, different.

Education and Health Care

Racism is a driving force even in our education and health care systems. How can this be?

For example, white middle-class people living in a white middle-class neighborhood usually don’t quibble too much over paying taxes to support their public school (or paying tuition for a private school) that serves mostly white middle-class families like themselves. But suggest that this same tax or tuition money should be distributed to schools in a wider circle and outrage will probably ensue. Why is this? Because there is a perception that “those people” as not part of “my society.” If we really and truly felt in our bones that we are one united society, we would not hesitate to invest in each other the way we do when our communities look like ourselves. The original sin of racism stains everything we do.

It’s all racism: We don’t want “those people” to benefit from “our money.” We only want “people like us” to share in what we have.

It’s more than a little ironic if white folks do not want “their” money to benefit someone else. Much of white wealth was earned on the backs of enslaved Africans on free land stolen from native people and it is all kept that way through a deeply entrenched system of white privilege. This in turn even benefits white people who have had no direct inheritance from the days of slavery.

When people talk of “states rights” and are against “federal spending,” these are often code words for racism. The reasoning is simple: If something is instituted at the federal level (such as spending for education or health care), then it would be distributed to all members of society evenly and equally. People who value states rights or local decision-making are hedging their bets that they can create a higher class of living for their select group at the expense of others outside their group—hence, racism. They want to maintain divisions to maintain privilege and power.

Rich people in rich neighborhoods pay for the education of each other’s children—that’s true whether it’s a private or public school. So why do many not not want to pay for the education of ALL kids in society?

Many pay for the health care of other people through shared health insurance group plans. But try to suggest that all Americans should be covered under a single-payer, federal plan, and you will encounter all manner of resistance. Why? Because “those people” who we have been trained to hate, fear, mistrust, rival—and who might have legitimate grievances against us—could stand to improve their stature and thus their “risk” to us. At least, that’s the fear.

Whatever feeling that arises when you read those words, perhaps a fear or a resistance, that is what this blog post is about.

The United States is not so United

We Americans just don’t see each other as members of the same family and society. If we did, it would be easy to convince each other of the value of investing in each other. We act very differently when we have that sense of shared commonality with others.

One problem with the sin of racism is that our best efforts to exclude others and deny that we have a shared identity with certain groups does not change the fact that we actually do have a shared destiny together. After all, what happens to you impacts me and visa versa. As MLK said, “we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” [emphasis added]. Either way, we are indeed “together.”

A lack of a shared vision is a poor vision. When crime goes up, when our nation falls behind other nations in the competitive world market, when our health care and education systems lag far behind other nations, we have only ourselves to blame. We are so threatened that another group or race might grow in power and standing that we end up just shooting ourselves in the foot in order to try to stop them. By attempting to hold them back we hold ourselves back. We cut our nose to spite our face. That’s reality whether we want to believe it or not.

Our country is built on paradoxes. That’s the polite way of saying it’s built on hypocrisy. As George Carlin so eloquently said: “This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free.” In a likewise fashion, this country was built by immigrants who wanted the door to immigration closed after them.

Our national rhetoric describes us as a “great melting pot” and a “nation of immigrants.” However, in light of our national history, those seem more like lofty goals than a description of the reality on the ground. The name of our country is the “United” States of America, but we have yet to actually unite as a whole people. We just don’t see “those people” are part of “us.” If we did, these discussions would be so very different.

That’s about as foundational of an issue as you are going to find. This is racism. And racism is indeed America’s original sin.

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