Slavery has been called America’s “original sin.” Barrett Holmes Pitner used the phrase in his article, “US Must Confront Its Original Sin and Move Forward,” published by the BBC. The University of California, Davis, offers a class called “Slavery: America’s Original Sin,” and the same words make up the title of a book by Jim Willis, America’s Original Sin. Barak Obama used the term in his Race Speech in March 2008, and Paul Krugman used it in a 2020 opinion column. These are just a few examples.
According to John Patrick Leary, the phrase is an unfortunate one. He explains that we can’t atone for an original sin. Such a sin is a “condition of our imperfect humanity” and requires a divine intervention, like a crucifixion, to repair it.  Leary reasons that, if we can’t do anything about our original sin, we will assume we don’t need to take personal responsibility for the harm the sin causes.
That means we white people won’t bother looking deeply at racism. We won’t recognize the truth about slavery and the continued oppression of black people in this county. Instead, we will deny the racism that still festers in our communities.
I’m not a proponent of the concept of original sin, and Leary’s argument is sensible as far as it goes. Besides, if we want to find the “original” sin we white people committed, it would probably be the Native American genocide at the hands of Europeans.
Who Is Racist?
Regardless of which sin was first and what the term “original sin” means theologically, we need words that allow us to speak about the evils of racism, and we need an analysis of how the taint of it sailed across the ocean with the first settlers and spread like a cancer throughout the United States. We – whites and people of color both – never had a chance to get along. Right from the start, the first European immigrants did what people throughout the world and down through history have done: they judged those who were different from them as inferior, then treated those people as if their judgment was true. Because they also had power, they caused great misery by oppressing the people they considered inferior.
Ultimately, racism is about power. In fact, many people claim that only whites can be racist, because they control the systems of power in this country. As one might expect, there is disagreement about this. It is true, however, that unless we have the sovereignty to dominate individuals with impunity and enact and enforce repressive laws, personal prejudice carries little bite.
Not that people of color can’t hurt someone who is white. They can. But a black mob would never get away with lynching a white man. If there were a symbol similar to the noose that a black person could erect in the public square, they would be soundly condemned if they did so. When a white person is killed, the offender receives the death penalty far more often than when a black person is. We really do value white lives over black or brown ones.
Examining Our Lives
Justice for people of color is hard to come by because the systems we have built over the centuries privilege whites. That’s the power of racism, and, at least in the United States, it’s the prerogative of white people.
That doesn’t mean only whites are sinful, nor does it mean that we are the only ones who need to do some soul-searching. European Americans, however, are the only ones who have a false sense of our own innocence.
James Baldwin used the word “innocence” to describe the way we white people refuse to face the damage we have done to people of color. In Sean Kim Butorac’s article about Baldwin’s writings, he explains that this fraudulent “racial innocence” arises from our “unexamined lives.”  We see it for instance, in people who refuse to recognize their personal history as it relates to racism or claim that “some of my best friends are black.”
If it is true that all white people are racist, and many people believe it is, that doesn’t necessarily mean we bought slaves or personally oppressed anyone, though we have probably made some foolish or thoughtless comment that perpetuated one stereotype or another. Our white privilege means we don’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing to the wrong people and getting arrested, cursed, or killed. The risk we take by existing is minimal.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will discover many little and thoughtless things we do, words we say, assumptions we make. Perhaps we judge the loudness of a group of black girls or cross the street when a black man heads toward us. Of course, if we are aware of such instincts, we might bite our tongues and keep silence or walk steadily forward, careful not to cringe or clutch our purse, knowing that to do so would reveal ourselves to be racist, which we know is bad. To break free of our white innocence, Baldwin tells us, we must admit and examine these impulses, and we must look at how growing up white in America instilled them into us.
If we refuse to do this, however, not only will we cling to an innocence that fools only us, but we will be unable to fully engage in embodied and sensual love. We will be, as Baldwin put it, loveless. 
Baldwin was talking about an embodied, sensual love, one that is not so much romantic, as fully fleshed, felt with one’s entire being. Similarly, feminists identified ways that European values preference the intellect over the body, ideas over sensuality, science over the wisdom of the earth. Although not bad in and of itself, unless we recognize this tendency and move through and past it, we will lose our capacity for full-bodied love. This means we will be unable to rejoice “in the force of life,” nor will we be present to ourselves and what we are doing, whether that be loving one other or breaking bread together.  The lovelessness that arises from this condition allows racism to endure.
Perhaps this lovelessness is the real “original sin.”
Sin has been defined in many different ways. It is missing the mark, a separation from God, breaking the commandments. In the realm of racism, it is denial.
According to Ibram X. Kendi, however, even we white people can free ourselves from denial and become antiracist. In his book, How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi outlines three ways we can respond to the reality of racism in America. We can be actively racist, which means we believe “problems are rooted in groups of people,” or we can be antiracist, which means we understand the cause of problems to lie “in power and policies.”
What Kendi calls “assimilationist” is a third option, though it is itself a kind of racism. An assimilationist believes that, though no group of people is inherently inferior, because of certain social conditions and histories, certain groups, who turn out to be all those who aren’t white, live inferior lives. The fact that black people, for instance, more often live in poverty than white people do and are incarcerated at higher rates, has nothing to do with their genes, nor is it because society is unfair, but it is because people of color can’t do any better. After generations of racist oppression, for instance, what more can you expect of them? As Kendi puts it, “Assimilationist ideas reduce people of color to the level of children needing instruction on how to act.” 
Seeking Control In Our Lives
According to Kendi, anyone can be an assimilationist. Even people of color yield to the temptation to blame the racism of their lives on their personal limitations. This has a certain appeal. If we, as individuals, are to blame, then perhaps, we can figure out how to change our situation. We can work harder, find the right allies, get more education. Then all will be well.
If the reality is more complicated, if, no matter how much education we get and how hard we work, we will still end up in menial jobs that don’t pay enough to provide for our children, then we may lose hope. How do we fight against a system?
Kendi arrived at his answer to that question after he developed cancer. He began to think of racism as a cancer rampaging through the United States. To treat this disease of racism, we must do what Kendi did to treat his illness. In the same way that he filled his body with chemicals designed to shrink the tumors, we can “[s]aturate the body politic with the chemotherapy . . . of antiracist policies.” In the same way that he had surgery to take out the last of his tumor, we can “[r]emove any remaining racist policies.” Kendi likens education and the spreading of antiracist ideas to eating well and getting enough exercise. 
Believing We Can Change
Before we can do these things, however, we must believe in the possibility of change. If we have sinned, we can repent and go forth and do otherwise. We can do the internal examination Baldwin calls us to, looking deeply at our own assumptions and beliefs, as well as our family story and the history of our nation. This is bound to lead to inner transformation. Such change is possible, and as we individuals change, we change our culture.
Kendi reminds us that racism is not entrenched. “Race and racism are power constructs of the modern world,” he writes.  That means that our belief in the superiority of one person over another has only been around for a few hundred years. Not that long in the big scheme of things.
If this is an accurate assessment of racism’s history, then it would not be an “original sin.” It would be something white people invented recently to gain power, wealth, and control, desires that arise out of the sins of pride, gluttony, avarice, sloth, and wrath. Sins can be managed. All religions give us guidance in how to do this. We need not continue to oppress people simply because we have the power to do so. It is possible to control our urges.
First, Learn to Love
Before we can do that, though, we have to learn to love. According to Baldwin, before we can love, we must examine our lives. It’s important to understand who we are as individuals, to know our history and the events that influence our worldview. As we do this, we may find ourselves giving up much that we currently hold sacred and letting go of the assumptions we use to justify our “crimes.”  Love requires honesty, and before we can be honest with anyone else, we must be honest with ourselves.
This is not easy, but it can be done.
But that’s just the first step. We are also part of a community, a whole. Even if we were not born in this country, but immigrated here, if we live in the United States, we are to some degree culpable for what happens here. If we, as a people, regardless of the color of our skin, do little or nothing to stop the violence against dark people, we are partly to blame.
Baldwin modeled this when he held himself responsible for the deaths of the four black girls murdered in 1963 when four Ku Flux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. 
We Are All Responsible
In A Rap on Race, an impromptu dialogue between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, Baldwin said as much. Mead argued with him.
“Did you bomb those little girls in Birmingham?” she asked.
“I didn’t stop it,”he said.
But he’d been trying to stop that kind of violence, she reminded him. He’d been writing, “working hard.”
“It doesn’t make any difference what one’s tried.”
“Look, you are not responsible,” she insisted.
“That blood is also on my hands,” he told her, “because I didn’t stop it.”
Mead wondered if he was also responsible for people dying in Burma, and Baldwin said he was. “Everybody’s suffering is mine.”
“Everybody’s suffering is mine,” she agreed, “but not everybody’s murdering.”
“But, Margaret,” Baldwin explained, “I have to accept it. . . . the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for.” 
Mead refused to accept his stance, which one might argue was extreme. But if we are our brother’s keeper, and if no one is free until everyone is free, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and if Baldwin considers himself responsible for the deaths of four girls whose skin was like his own, how can any of us claim to be innocent?
This matters. If we claim innocence, if we say, “That’s not my fight,” then racial injustice will continue. Then we will know no love.
Is Love the Answer?
Not everyone agrees love is the answer. Hannah Arendt dismissed love as a political force, equating it with hatred. Responding to James Baldwin’s letter published in The New Yorker, “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” in which he described the experience of being black in America and emphasized the importance of love, Arendt wrote that his “gospel of love” “frightened” her. She stated that getting love mixed up in politics only leads to “hypocrisy,” and that both hatred and love are destructive. “[Y]ou can afford them only in private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.” 
Her belief that we can only afford love “as long as [we] are not free,” may be related to her understanding of love. Arendt identified of two types of love: love as craving and unworldly love. When we crave something, whether it be a person, a drug, or life itself, we will do whatever it takes to attain what we desire. Unlike this passionate love that drives us to cling to the things of this world, divine love akes us outside the bounds of this world.
In his article “What Is Love? Hannah Arendt and the ‘Amor Mundi,” Mark Aloysius explains that, for Arendt, this unwordly love might allow us to “discover the source of our own being in God,” but if we get caught up in such a love, “we reduce the world and the other to mere phantasms.”  Then, we will withdraw from the world.
Thus, Arendt believed, love “is not only apolitical, but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all the antipolitical forces in the world.” 
If we take love out of the political realm, however, what will give us the strength to be antiracist? What will drive us to examine our lives and give up our innocence? Love gives us courage. It encourages us to hold ourselves responsible for others, to be our “brother’s keeper.” Because we love, we care even about those who are different from us.
Love is not soft, though. Indeed, perhaps because of the craving that lies under much of our loving, that passion for our beloved and for life itself, love demands accountability. In fact, it’s the only stance out of which I would trust people to hold themselves and others accountable. If, instead, we try to assign blame and responsibility from a sense of frustration, outrage, or humiliation, for example, we will end up not with justice, but with revenge, punishment, lust, greed, blame, torture, murder, toxic shame, and denial.
Instead of lashing out, love desires understanding. Not only is love patient enough to ferret out truth, it is compassionate enough to seek the penance and restitution that will redeem the soul of the one who caused harm, while also helping the victim heal.
Letting Go of Innocence
This is important when individuals hurt another, but will also help us come to terms with our nation’s legacy of racism. Truth and reconciliation commissions, for instance, are becoming an increasingly popular way to do this on a societal level. We can do the same thing for one another by searching out the truth of our own hearts and sharing it with someone else.
Love is powerful. When embedded in our bodies and hearts as a craving, it can be distorted into lust, and out of that lust arise all corruption, the worship of idols of all kinds, and a craven surrender to evil. At the same time, this embodied love is a force of strength that, combined with the unworldly love of a deity, allows us to face down evil. Love knows that survival is not all that matters.
As white people, we need to give up the “innocence” Baldwin talks about. To do this, we must look within, search our thoughts and emotions, recognize our denial and the discomfort that lies beneath it, shed our addictions to being right, to being rich, to being better than the other. We must let go of our skewed sense of fairness, one that allows us to justify our privilege and the harassment and subjugation of those whom society has tossed aside.
The Love that Liberates
Maya Angelou said, “If you want to liberate someone, love them. Not be in love with them – that’s dangerous.”
Being in love with someone means giving up your control to them. That’s not the kind of love I’m talking about, and, as Angelou says, it’s dangerous. But when we love someone with the unworldly love of the divine, we help them see the truth of themselves without fear or shame. That is a form of forgiveness, a way to help people move past their hurts and anger. Then they can learn to love, as well.
We can do this for ourselves, learning who we really are and finding a way to appreciate our fullness, both our sins and our magnificence. Afterwards, we can pass this freedom on to others.
Baldwin defined love as “the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”  We can give ourselves the opportunity for growth; we can give that to others. Then, if we can live in this experience of a love that is like forgiveness, if we can understand how we are all responsible for each other, there will be no more racism. It just won’t be needed.
Not that this will be easy. But there is a path to take to get there, and we are all responsible for starting the journey. We are all responsible for losing our innocence and learning to love.
In faith and fondness,
- Leary, John Patrick, “’Original Sin,’ Slavery, and American Innocence,” Social Text Online, April 3, 2017, https://socialtextjournal.org/original-sin-slavery-and-american-innocence/, accessed 2/20/21.
- Butorac, Sean Kim, “Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, and the Politics of Love,” Political Research Quarterly, September 2018, Vol. 71, No. 3, pp. 710-721, 714, Sage Publications, https://www.jstor.org/stable/45106693?seq=1, accessed 2/17/21.
- Kendi, Ibram X., How to Be an Antiracist, New York: One World, 2019, ebook, 59.
- Ibid 444.
- Ibid 445.
- Baldwin, James, “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” The New Yorker, November 17, 1962, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind, accessed 2/18/21.
- “16th Street Church Bombing,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16th_Street_Baptist_Church_bombing#:~:text=Four%20girls%2C%20Addie%20Mae%20Collins,were%20killed%20in%20the%20attack, accessed 2/20/21.
- Baldwin, James and Margaret Mead, A Rap on Race, New York: J. P. Lippincott & Co., 1971.
- Arendt, Hannah, “The Meaning of Love in Politics: A Letter by Hannah Arendt to James Baldwin,” November 21, 1962, http://www.hannaharendt.net/index.php/han/article/view/95/156, accessed 2/17/21.
- Aloysius, Mark, “What Is Love? Hannah Arendt and the ‘Amor Mundi,” Thinking Faith, February 13, 2018, https://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/what-love-hannah-arendt-and-amor-mundi#_edn6, accessed 2/20/21.
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, p.242, quoted by Aloysius.
- Baldwin “Letter.”
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