by Dr. James Walters
Associate Professor of Religion
In the past few years, it has become somewhat common to hear the claim that racism is America’s original sin. This is both a historical and theological claim. Thus, because I am both a historian and a theologian (or at least I play one in the classroom), it’s only natural that I’d like to interrogate this idea.
Doctrine of original sin explained
Let’s start with theology: the doctrine of “original sin” is the idea that sin is inherited genetically from parent to child. That is, simply put: humans are born in a state of sinfulness. This doctrine originated with an early Christian theologian named Augustine of Hippo.
During his lifetime, Augustine became embroiled in a debate with another theologian named Pelagius. Pelagius maintained that humans could, in theory, live a life without sin. In response, Augustine formulated his famous doctrine that humans are “not able not to sin.” (Note: don’t try to submit a paper with a double negative like that—it’s OK in Latin, but not English!)
Augustine based this argument in his interpretation of the apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 5. So, for Augustine, the doctrine of original sin goes all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: they sinned and brought sin into the world. Then, according to the teaching of original sin, their sin—along with death—was passed along like a genetic trait of hair or eye color. In other words, according to the doctrine, sin is in the human DNA.
Original sin applied to racism
When considering the history of the United States, it is easy to see how the language of original sin can be applied to racism. The trans-Atlantic slave trade, which pre-dated the establishment of the United States as a nation, was rooted in European ideas of race and ethnicity that universally considered black and brown-skinned people to be morally and intellectually inferior. These ideas of race fueled the spirit of colonial exploitation that plundered the people of Africa and led to the mass slaughter of native tribes in the Americas.
It is certainly no exaggeration to say that the United States of America as a nation was built on the backs of slave labor. The early economy was tied to textile production, which was dependent upon the harsh conditions of cotton plantations in the south. Thus, even those who did not own slaves benefited from slave labor. But none benefited more than the wealthy, white land-owners—including the ones whose names are listed at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence and whose reputations as Founding Fathers obscures their legacy of oppression.
As the economy of the early American democracy grew, many northern cities began developing economic growth in areas not directly dependent upon slave labor, but the south remained dependent upon farming. The economy of the southern states was so dependent upon race-based slave labor that 11 states were willing to secede from the union simply because the newly elected president—Abraham Lincoln—opposed the expansion of slavery into western territories.
White nationalism bears mark of original sin
Following the Civil War, the dark history of the Jim Crow era and the rise of white nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan bears the mark of that original sin. Even throughout the Civil Rights era, as black leaders sought to ensure that the rights and privileges guaranteed to every citizen by the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution—particularly the right to vote—were protected, the greatest opponent they faced was not the outright bigots who stood adamantly opposed to social progress, but the white moderates that claimed to support the Civil Rights movement, but not its methods or its timelines. Writing from a prison in Birmingham, AL (my own home state), Martin Luther King, Jr. did not hold back his criticism of these white moderates, many of whom were Christian ministers.
The racial tensions that have engulfed much of the country over the last few years serve as a reminder that the specter of racism still haunts us. Unfortunately, the advances of civil rights from the 1960s have not led to much progress in other aspects of equality or equal access.
Moderate white Americans stay silent
From the protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, to the protests over Civil War statues in Charlottesville, Virginia (and other cities as well), it is clear that our original sin still marks us. Black Americans continue the struggle to be seen and treated as equals, and Dr. King’s words from his prison cell still resonate as radicalized white supremacists march in the streets and as moderate white Americans largely remain silent, judging the methods by which protestors make their voices heard.
Yes, racism is our original sin.
And yet, this metaphor fails in one important regard. In the doctrine of original sin, sin is passed along genetically. Humans cannot help but inherit their sinful state. This is not the case with racism. Racism is not inherited; it is learned through habit—by the way we speak, the jokes we tell and laugh at, the comments we let slide. Racism is Sin (with a capital s), but it does not have to be passed on from generation to generation. We can unlearn this particular vice, if we have the courage to name it within ourselves.