The best-selling author joins us to discuss is book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.
Author Jim Wallis
Tavis: Jim Wallis is, of course, a noted theologian, bestselling author and the president and founder of the progressive Christian Evangelical group, Sojourners. He’s written a new text called “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America”. Jim Wallis, always good to have you on this program.
Jim Wallis: A blessing to be with you, always.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend. Before we jump into the text, I can’t not ask you where this issue is concerned, racism and white privilege, or these issues, what do you make of this presidential race? I deliberately don’t want to color the question, pardon the pun, any more than that.
Wallis: Well, the media is obsessed with the “race”, the political race. We’re going around the country talking about the state of race in America, not just the state of the race, and they’re not talking about it. They’re just not talking about it. So when you have a white nationalist candidate win the New Hampshire primary, we ought to be talking about that.
Tavis: And that’s New Hampshire. That’s not South Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi.
Wallis: New Hampshire.
Tavis: What do you make of that?
Wallis: Well, the book talks about the bridge to a new America. The new America is that in, two decades, as you know, will no longer be a white majority nation. We’ll be a majority of minorities and there’s a lot of older white folks who are afraid of that. So that conversation is underneath all of this on immigration, on a Black president, on voting rights. So that’s the biggest political fact of America.
So I talk in the book about how we have to build that bridge. A new generation, I think, wants to build that bridge to a new America, but the pushback is very powerful.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact–and I’m not saying this to cast aspersion. I’m saying it because these are the facts and the data point this out. Every network has made this particular point. And that is that a goodly number, a significant number of Donald Trump’s supporters, the white nationalist, as you call him, who won New Hampshire, are not the most educated Americans. How do you read that factoid?
Wallis: Well, you know, we’ve had, as you know well, two kinds of populisms in America and one is one that blames the other, Huey Long. So you got a lot of white working class folks now whose incomes are stagnating, whose sons and daughters are sent to wars that don’t work and killing and maiming them, and they feel marginalized.
And he’s saying, blame the other. Blame the president who isn’t one of us. Blame the immigrants. Blame the Muslims. So that’s the blame the other kind of populism. But the other kind says no.
After the Civil War in North Carolina, you had white working class people and former slaves forming a party together and electing a governor [inaudible]. So that fusion party really worked. William Barber’s doing that now in North Carolina. So there’s two ways to do this, and coming together is the way that I’m talking about building a bridge.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that Trump is winning in basically every category, we are told certainly that was the case in New Hampshire, including so-called Christian conservatives? Why are these Christians, these conservative Christians, so angry?
I would like to think that one of the things that we work toward getting over as Christians is this sort of anger that’s so deep inside of us. But what are these conservative, white Christians so angry about?
Wallis: Evangelical comes from the word Evangel, which was in Jesus’s first sermon at Nazareth when he quoted Isaiah. He said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He’s anointed me to bring the Evangel, good news to the poor” which means, if your gospel isn’t good news to poor people, it isn’t the gospel of Jesus.
So these folks are voting as white, older, uneducated Americans, not as Evangelicals. So the book says, if white Christians acted more Christian than white, Black parents would be less fearful for their children.
Tavis: Why is that so hard for some people to do?
Wallis: Well, because their sociology trumps their theology. Trumps is a good word for that. So how do we–I’ve talked to a lot of people who want to get theological. America’s original sin was at the beginning of this nation. We said very specifically that Black lives matter less than white lives. We couldn’t justify our faith and treat slaves as chattel property, so we had to say they were less than human.
So a kid in Ferguson told me last year, “I feel still like three-fifths of a person.” This was a teenage kid last year in Ferguson. It was in the Constitution, three-fifths of a person.
So that was a sin against not just the Africans, but against God. God created us to be in God’s image, all of us, and to have dominion stewardship over the rest of the creation. Now when people say I want to have dominion over another people, that’s a sin against God. So what I’m saying here is Christians got to get over their whiteness. White Christianity is an idol.
So the book talks about getting theological here, go into the roots of this and saying we’ve got to repent of our white Christianity. Repentance, as you know, doesn’t mean being sorry. It means turning around and going a whole different direction on policing, criminal justice, education, economics. That’s what this is about.
Tavis: I’ve read the text, so I know what you mean when you use the phrase, “America’s original sin”. But it reminded me—when I first saw your book come across my desk—it reminded me of the much heralded race speech that Obama gave in his first run for office when the Jeremiah Wright thing got too hot to handle…
Tavis: Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center. And he used that phrase and I recall publicly pushing back on then candidate Obama. And I pushed back on him because, while I understood what he was trying to say, America’s original sin is not slavery. America’s original sin, as you well know, is what we did to the indigenous people.
And while I take the point of the text and take what President Obama was trying to say, I just think we need to be a little more elastic in our definition of what we mean when we say America’s original sin. It wasn’t slavery.
Wallis: Original sin was to dehumanize…
Wallis: People of color.
Tavis: That’s right.
Wallis: First, indigenous people, and then slaves.
Tavis: That’s right.
Wallis: When whites get off with the slavery because I didn’t have slaves, my parents didn’t have slaves, no, no. You know, the Romans had Greek slaves who tutored their elite children. They didn’t rip their families apart or make them into chattel property. The original sin was saying that white lives matter more than lives of people of color. That’s the original sin.
Tavis: How do you help those conservative Christians or just Christians, no matter what their ideological bent might be, those American Christians who still don’t quite get this notion of Black lives matter? They get offended by the phrase, Black lives matter. What do you say to them? How do you help them understand that?
Wallis: Black Lives Matter, the movement, is striking to the heart of America’s original sin. So Brittany Packnett, one of their great young leaders, I saw her the other night in Ferguson, she says to me, “We don’t just need allies. We need accomplices.” I love that, accomplices.
We’re having town meetings all across the country. They’re intergenerational, very multiracial, they’re young, older people. And we’re saying, “What does it mean to be accomplices for Black Lives Matter?”
This is right at the heart of the contradiction in American life. The future here in Los Angeles, I mean, this is an epicenter for what the new America’s becoming, right? So how do we build that bridge to the new demographic, rather than how we try to prevent, block, delay, deny the new demographic, which is what is behind all these politics?
Tavis: If inherent in your white skin is the notion of white skin privilege, whether one acts on it or doesn’t think about it or not, there is inherently a privilege that redounds to you by the nature of having white skin. What does one do about that? One can’t change one’s skin. One can’t apologize for being born white. What does one do about the inherent advantage that one gets just by being born white in America?
Wallis: If you don’t see white privilege, you got it, right [laugh]? So I wrote this book when Trayvon was killed. That’s when I decided to write it. I looked at my son, Luke, who you know Luke. He’s six foot tall now, varsity athlete, playing baseball in college next year.
The whole country knows that, if Luke Wallis was in Sanford, Florida, same time, same place as Trayvon, doing the very same things, he’d have come back to me in joy. Trayvon didn’t come back to his mom and dad and he’s not going to college next fall.
And my son, Jack, we’re in the U.K. over the Christmas holiday. My wife’s a Brit. They all said, “Jack, you’re so big and tall.” He’s a big 12-year-old, right? He told them all he’s five foot seven and a half.
Well, the news came over the pond over Christmas. The police officer who shot Tamir Rice was getting off, no trial, no indictment. And I read the prosecutor’s words sitting next to my son on the couch. Said he was a larger than an average 12-year-old. He was five foot seven and a half.
Jack Wallis wouldn’t have been shot in two seconds without talking to in a Cleveland park. That’s privilege. That’s white privilege. I’m a white baby boomer. My naval dad veteran got an FHA loan and a GI bill. Education and a house. That makes him in a class. The government made my white family class.
So I’m talking in the book about how we have to understand this privilege, so how do you make space? Because a new America’s becoming and all these meetings around the country where we’re having these town meetings, it’s always young, diverse leaders who are talking about what does this mean here?
We’ve been at Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson, Los Angeles, up the coast here. What does this mean here? And how do we build this bridge where privilege or punishment are not the result of your skin color? “Democracy in Black”, Eddie Glaude says that Black, Brown and White, that would be true American exceptionalism, which I have been critical of most of my life.
So Heather McGhee at the New York meeting said, “Gee, if we could build that bridge to a new America and navigate these waters, that would be for the first time truly American exceptionalism”, and I believe that.
Tavis: The new book from Jim Wallis is called “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America”, with a wonderful foreword by Bryan Stevenson who we all respect and admire. Jim Wallis, good to have you on this program, sir.
Wallis: A blessing.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend. Goodnight from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.