Jim Wallis: For Real Racial Change to Occur, White Christians Must Act More Christian Than White

(Photo: Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo: Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images)

by Jim Wallis

Some white Americans would like to try to “fix” the systemic racism that exists in our criminal justice, educational, economic, and even our religious institutions. But in order for real change to occur, our understanding of realities like white privilege must also move beyond the institutional and into the very personal.

When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Fla. in 2012, I remember looking at my own son, Luke. Trayvon and Luke were similar in age, but the more we learned about how Trayvon died, the more the painfully obvious the differences became. Luke is now a six-foot-tall baseball player going off to college next year, while Trayvon’s family continues to grieve his death.

Even President Obama, one of the most powerful people in the world, noted that “when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.” But the whole country knows that if my white teenage son had been out in the same place, at the same time, doing the same things as Trayvon was, Luke would have come home that night unharmed.

Are white Americans willing and able to confront the underlying white privilege at the heart of the two boys’ vastly different futures?  What does it mean for white parents to truly lament the painful racial truth in our country?

Just last month our family was in England celebrating Christmas. While we were there, we saw the headlines from America that the white police officer in Cleveland, Ohio who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 would not face a trial. Tamir, not yet even a teenager, was shot and killed just two seconds after the police car pulled up to the boy in a park. The prosecutor, Tim McGinty, defending the grand jury’s decision not to indict the white officer, said this: “It is likely that Tamir, whose size made him look much older and who had been warned his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day, either intended to hand it over to the officers or show them it wasn’t a real gun.” McGinty went on to say: “But there was no way for the officers to know that, because they saw the events rapidly unfolding in front of them from a very different perspective.”

“Whose size made him look much older.” At 12 years old, Tamir was 5-7½.  In England, friends and family were eager to celebrate my younger son Jack for how big and strong and athletic he was.  Jack is 12 years old, and 5-7½.

No one thought Jack’s size made him look threatening or menacing. If my white son had been in that Cleveland park that day, even playing with a toy gun, would a white police officer have shot him without even asking him any questions? Would a white prosecutor have declined to prosecute that white police officer? I doubt it.

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Rev. Jim Wallis is the president and founder of Sojourners and author of the new book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America.