By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com magazine
JIM WALLIS’s new book is so timely that he has been wishing, for months, that he could update its pages as each new headline about racism breaks in national news.
“Because of my publisher’s schedule, to have the book come out in January, my draft of the book was finished and in the publisher’s hands before the Charleston church shootings in June,” Wallis says in our interview as he prepares to travel in 2016, talking about the urgent issues he raises in America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America. “After Charleston happened, it became a preface that I was able to add to the book.”
So, in the autumn of 2015, a four-page preface by Wallis was added to the manuscript. It says in part: “I had finished writing this book when the Charleston killings occurred. This horrific event in American history—our current history—will likely set the tone and the framework for a new national conversation on racism. This massacre must be turned into a redemptive moment.”
Now, stop and think as you read this story about Wallis’s new book: When was the last time you heard friends or colleagues mention Charleston? What signs can you see that the shock of that tragedy did turn into a new national conversation? Instead, new waves of violence threaten to eclipse our collective reflections on Charleston. As a people, our attention has strayed.
And that, quite simply, is why you should click over to Amazon and order a copy of this book. To summarize the book’s 250 pages in a sentence: Wallis is pleading with us as Americans—each and every one of us—to actually start that national conversation on the roots of racism, its many manifestations today and possible ways we might peacefully cross the bridge to “a new America.”
Flipping to the book’s last page, Wallis writes (with his own emphasis on certain phrases):
It is time to take the dramatic events we have experienced around immigration, voting rights, and the need for criminal justice reform and turn those moments into a movement. In his last book, Martin Luther King wrote, “We are faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” The time has come to cross the bridge to a new America.
Wallis says that Charleston tragically confirmed his long-standing contention that racism is deeply engrained in the foundations of this nation. Slavery built an enormous portion of America’s infrastructure. Racism shaped everything from the patterns of our communities, today, to the opportunities for work to support our families. Crusades around “law and order” have led to a national policy that is biased toward imprisoning people of color.
As publication of his new book nears, Wallis says: “The only way to honor the victims of Charleston is to deal with racism as America’s original sin and to see how that lingering sin still expresses itself in the criminal justice system, the educational system, urban planning, the whole system of white privilege.”
Anyone familiar with Wallis’s work knows this book is deeply personal. He understands how quickly our attention strays. In fact, he started writing this book shortly after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. (As you’re reading this, do you find yourself pausing to think: Who was Travyon Martin? Again, Wallis’s point is made.)
THE STORIES WE MUST TELL
In our interview, Wallis says that he hopes Americans will remember and retell these stories—until they become like the parables of Jesus that people around the world recall 2,000 years after the original storyteller walked the earth.
“We need a new conversation—that’s what I’ve heard from people across this country, again and again. That’s clear. And what stories will we tell?” Wallis says. “We need to tell and retell new parables. Trayvon’s story is a parable. Michael Brown is a parable. These are parables—stories that teach us lessons. This new book talks about what lessons we can learn from parables like these.
“One story I tell in the book is part of my own story growing up in Detroit and going to work for Detroit Edison, where I met this young man named Butch. We talked and talked and became friends. This was 50 years ago. And I realized that I was doing this job to save money for college. Butch was supporting his family. And I remember meeting his mother when he asked me to dinner at his house. I realized that she was a loving mother—like my mother—a mom who cared about her kids.”
Wallis recalls many differences between his family and Butch’s family. “I still remember that when I was young, my mother told us that if we ever got lost, we should look for a policeman. She’d say, ‘He’s your friend and he’ll bring you safely home.’ But in Butch’s family? His Mom taught him: ‘If you’re ever lost and can’t find your way home—if you see a policeman, duck under a stairwell or hide behind a building until he’s gone and then you’ll be safe to make your way home.'”
Wallis says, “These are not new stories. They’re old stories.”
The new book doesn’t set up Butch and his mother as experts—or claim that what a young Jim learned from his friend Butch was based on exhaustive research. Rather, Walllis wants us to go and do the same. Start conversations. Visit with people. Tell these stories and draw the lessons from these new parables. That’s what must take place, Wallis urges, to turn our reactions to headlines into a much deeper movement of people who are connected with one another, and care about each other, in communities nationwide.
THE INEVITABLE TRUTH
Before you dismiss what Wallis is preaching in this book as, perhaps, the same old call for dialogue—stop and ponder one more truth he is talking about as he barnstorms through the nation in 2016 talking about these issues. The inevitable truth is that the old white majority in America is going to vanish as a majority—eroding the power that comes with majority status.
Don’t take it from Jim Wallis—take it from ongoing studies by the Pew Research Center. Here are just a few headlines over the past year:
- From a forecast of our U.S. population: Future immigration will change the face of America
- A look at young Americans from diverse backgrounds: Multiracial in America—proud, diverse and growing in numbers
- This historic shift already is happening in many parts of the U.S.: Reflecting a racial shift
“The demographics are, indeed, inevitable,” says Wallis. “That’s the big truth that’s behind all of the reaction to immigration reform, to Barack Obama, to the refugee crisis. Underneath these reactions is the truth that older white Americans are not at all ready for this demographic change. It’s inevitable that we are seeing this resistance. This is the core of Donald Trump’s constituency.
“In Congress now, we’ve got this caucus of white members in the House from districts—many of which have been gerrymandered into being mostly white. They’ve really become the veto caucus. They know they ultimately won’t win, but they’re holding off, blocking and obstructing the implications of this demographic change.
“That whole movement is designed to block the way, to forestall the effects of this demographic change, so the demographic change won’t necessarily lead to the healthy, diverse America that we all long for.”
And, so, Wallis says as he closes our interview: “It’s time. We need people to help us navigate this change. We could see a future in this country of just increasing confrontation between minorities and white culture. We could see a lot of violence.
“Or, we could see a lot of people stepping up to help with the conversation, to help with the change. America is going to cross this demographic bridge. The question is: Who is going to help us navigate—so we are able to make this crossing together?”