Volume 15 Number 1
Race and Repentance
01 February 2002

More than 30 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr, America is still divided along racial lines. Why?

Two thirds of black Americans have achieved middle-class status, but one third remain in poverty—many seemingly trapped in the social pathologies of the urban underclass. At the same time, the increase in the number and profile of other racial minorities is dramatically changing the country’s demographic landscape and enormously complicating America’s increasingly colourful racial picture. And while many whites are still poor, poverty continues to be disproportionately the experience of people of colour, especially among the millions of their children who have been abandoned by society.

But racism is more than poverty. In 2001, middle-class African American, Latino, Asian and Native American parents are still able to tell personal stories of racial prejudice and discrimination directed at them or their children. Most white people, on the other hand, seem tired of talking about racism, are opposed to affirmative action, and want to believe that their country has now become a level playing field for all races. Few people of colour believe that.

Most significantly, the United States is still a very segregated society—from residential patterns to cultural associations to church attendance. The number of stable, racially integrated neighbourhoods across the country is still pitifully small. And after school or work, people of different races in America spend precious little time together.


Have we made progress since the end of legal segregation? Undeniably. But have we come as far in the 30 years since the civil rights revolution as most of us expected we would? Obviously not. Most people today would probably agree that the hopes that followed the passage of the historic 1960s civil rights and voting rights legislation have yet to be fulfilled. As we enter a new century, America is still a racially divided society, where diversity is widely perceived as a cause for conflict more than for celebration.

Clearly, we underestimated the problem. Since the 1960s, we have learned that racism goes deeper than civil rights and, indeed, has survived the civil rights movement. Many social analysts and commentators have persuasively argued that racism goes deeper than mere prejudice and personal attitudes, and is rooted in institutional patterns and structural injustices. At the end of his life, Dr King was himself more focused on the issues of poverty, which, he believed, were the next front in the battle to overcome racism.

The depth of racism in the cultural and psychic history of the United States has seldom been fully comprehended. The impact and enduring legacy of the institution of slavery have been especially underestimated. Perhaps we have yet to get to the heart of the problem because we have failed to perceive its fundamental spiritual and theological roots.

In biblical terms, racism is an idol that enslaves people and nations in its deadly grip. An idol is simply a lie that people believe and worship. The idol of ‘whiteness’ and the assumptions of white privilege and supremacy have yet to be spiritually confronted in America, and even in the churches. White racism truly is America’s ‘original sin’. Building a nation on land stolen from indigenous people, with the use of slave labour from kidnapped black Africans, has left us with a legacy we have yet to deal with fully. The lack of true repentance for that sin still confounds our efforts to overcome it.

There is more to do than educating, organizing, advocating, changing consciousness and changing policies. In addition to the hard work of personal relationships, community building and political and economic change, other responses may be required—like confession, prayer, conversion and forgiveness. White privilege is hard to give up, and racial oppression is hard to forgive.

Our goal must be to view America’s growing racial diversity more as a gift to be embraced than as a problem to be solved. That’s a fundamental attitude that all of us can commit ourselves to. The old notions of a ‘melting pot’ must give way to a healthy cultural pluralism supported by an underlying national unity. Racial justice and reconciliation must be taught to our children as non-negotiable principles, and the best way to do that is for adults to act on those principles. Children learn what they see.


Overcoming our racial divisions is crucial as we begin the new century. Whether we are brought together or further divided must become a moral criterion for evaluating our political goals and processes. The leadership being offered by a new generation of black and Hispanic urban leaders is winning respect across the political spectrum. If the young leaders of America’s diverse minorities can forge a common interest in breaking down the walls of white privilege instead of fighting each other, they will accomplish significant social victories—especially if they can form effective alliances with young whites who find the old racial privilege more a burden than a blessing.

We must move beyond dialogues and presidential commissions and commit ourselves to the personal relationships, institutional transformations, and social and political policies that move us from soft multiculturalism to a racially pluralistic democracy.

Jim Wallis is Editor-in-chief of ‘Sojourners’ magazine and Convenor of Call to Renewal, a US federation of churches and faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty. This article is adapted from ‘Faith Works’ (Random House, 2000).

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