Is Racism America’s “Original Sin?”

Racism has been called “America’s Original Sin.” Let’s examine America’s tragic legacy of racism and consider how we as UU’s might characterize this.

Share the plate: Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network (SIHN)
Celebrant: Willan Cervantes, Anchor: Sara Pickett
Music both services: Ted Cory


The African slave that trade began in the 15th century was unspeakably cruel and inhumane, but also very lucrative for the slave traders, slave holders, merchants and others enmeshed in the slave economy. Human nature is such that when we do evil we are not able to acknowledge this as such – we tend to justify and rationalize our actions. Thus it was that all who benefitted from slavery justified this by promoting racist ideas – toxic memes – that entered into our social consciousness. (Similarly, racist ideas were also employed to justify America’s genocidal treatment of native Americans and exploitation of migrant labor)

Even though slavery “officially” ended in America at the conclusion of the civil war the racist beliefs, attitudes and practices became even more virulent and extreme. Racism was especially so in the former land of the Confederacy, where I was born smack dab in the middle of the 20th Century. Vestiges of the old south were all around me – blacks had long been terrorized into submission by threat of force and were largely segregated away from whites like me. Whereas for black people Georgia was a racist police state where freedoms and opportunities were denied, yet was not so for me because I was white. This was the toxic social environment into which I was born and lived for most of my youth. For a brief time – two years – I had the good fortune to live on an integrated Army base in Germany where blacks and whites mixed on more equal terms and where I became, for a time, like a little brother to an older boy – smart and kind and cool – who happened to be black, although this racial fact hardly registered with me at the time. To me he was just “Gus.”

When my family moved back to the strictly segregated south I had experienced enough to know not to embrace the most virulent and vicious forms of racism, yet it did not occur to me during my youth to question, much less challenge, systemic racism, which has been called “America’s Original Sin.”

Original sin? Is that a good way to characterize the role of racism in our nation’s history? Some background on this term: According to ancient Augustinian theology all humankind was forever tainted by Adam’s original sinful rebellion against God. Being human meant being born into sin and being inherently depraved – it meant that you WERE a sinner – THAT was your core identity – a sinner, estranged from God.

So, according to the doctrine of original sin, does it therefore follow that all white, people born into a country – whose original sin is racism – are inevitably racists? Before I share a Unitarian Universalist perspective on that, it’s important to note the systemic nature of racism in our society – which is to say, the underlying systems of racist thought and practice are larger than any one of us even as it affects everyone of us, like it or not.

Example: Progressive minister Jim Wallis tells the story of a conversation he had with a black mother who said, “So I tell all of my children,” she said, “if you are ever lost and can’t find your way back home, and you see a policeman, quickly duck behind a building or down a stairwell. When the policeman is gone, come out and find your own way back home.” As he heard this black mother speak Wallis, a white man, recalled what his own mother had told him, “If you are ever lost and can’t find your way home, look for a policeman. The policeman is your friend. He will take care of you and bring you safely home.”

This dual reality is a consequence of the systemic racism in American law enforcement. But does this mean that all police and all white people in our nation are racists? According to logic of original sin the answer is “yes.”

Yet, Unitarian Universalists have a history of rejecting the original doctrine of original sin because they did not think it was true or helpful to label everyone as a “sinner.” Our spiritual forebears were not oblivious to human failings, yet they recognized how labelling humankind as inherently depraved was spiritually disempowering. Likewise I do not think it’s helpful when white people who consciously reject racism are called racists when they unwittingly say or do racist things. Indeed, it’s not helpful to brand any person with a label. Labels freeze people into discrete categories and dehumanize them, dismiss any possibility of change and growth.

That’s not to diminish the enormous, ongoing problem of racism in America. Racist thoughts and feelings are, alas, alive and well. It’s just that when people have a “racist” or a “deplorable” label pinned upon them there are likely to react with defensiveness and denial or experience abject shame and spiritual paralysis, neither of which helps bring about transformation and redemption. On the other hand, if someone feels affirmed as a person – when their own “inherent worth and dignity” is affirmed – and they are then encouraged to be aware of how systemic racism may be shaping their consciousness and interactions, or is invited to have empathy for those who are victims of racism, then growth and transformation are possible.

As a white male it’s hard for me to fathom how it must be for a person of color living in a society infected by racism – how so many interactions are strained and painful and how there are a lack of opportunities for employment, housing, education, health care for people of color. The epic scope of the tragic and devastating consequences of systemic racism continues. And how naïve some of us were in recognizing how hard it would be to dismantle systemic racism. How demoralized many of us feel today with the regressive racist policies and practices of our current administration.

You wonder how Martin Luther King, Jr. – who was assassinated 50 years ago – would see things today. He’d surely be aghast at the growth of obscene levels of economic inequality and the power of multi-national corporations and the health care industrial complex which value profit more than the common welfare. He would be dismayed to see how the military industrial, the prison industrial and complexes and the gun lobby help create and sustain a culture of fear and oppression, and he would undoubtedly be disheartened to see how civil rights legislation – like the Voting Rights Act – is subverted by the machinations of judges and politicians.

Yet I also think he’d acknowledge that in terms of racial awareness we have moved forward some on the long road toward the promised land of beloved community – that the light of moral awareness shines brighter than it did in the day when Alabama State Troopers and Birmingham Sheriff Bull Conner could beat and imprison black protesters with impunity, even as he would be heartbroken to see how black lives still don’t seem to really matter in our society.

King knew that the causes he served were greater than any single individual and that his life would end before American society got to that promised land of freedom and equality and that others would have to persevere on this long journey. This is not to say that he counseled “patience” in the face of injustice. During my days in theology school I learned that one of my very elderly professors had, two decades earlier co-written a letter with seven other white clergymen counseling King to show patience and restraint in advocating for the end to segregation – to wait some more. King wrote his famous response to them while sitting in the Birmingham jail saying: Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see… that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

So here we are fifty years later when the conditions of black Americans and other people of color is less than just and equal. Systemic racism still destroys and diminishes too many millions of lives. The statistics showing the difference between the quality of life for blacks and whites is a damning indictment of our society.

Even so, King would never give in to cynicism and give up hope because that becomes an excuse for doing nothing. Likewise our theological heritage doesn’t allow for us to do nothing – either to passively assume that things will just automatically get better or to state that American society is irredeemably racist and there’s no help for this.

There is help and it lies within each one of us. The renegade theologian Matthew Fox countered the theology of original sin with what he termed the theology of “original blessing” which is congruent with our Unitarian Universalist heritage. According to this teaching of original blessing we, who are “all original blessings and sons and daughters of the Divine, are called to compassion, we acknowledge our shared interdependence; we rejoice at one another’s joys and grieve at one another’s sorrows and labor to heal the causes of those sorrow.”

Indeed – what great sorrow and suffering and injustice and hatred and fear and division has been sown by racist beliefs? And each one of us, grounded in original blessing, is gifted with moral and spiritual agency. You and I are empowered to help heal our nation, to help end the centuries long nightmare that has destroyed so many lives and damaged the soul of America. The nightmare will not end in our lifetimes, but the gleam of the dream – the dream of beloved community – can grow brighter through the good work we do individually and as a congregation.

How? I’m going to let Augustine have the last word. I’m not sure even he believed his doctrine of original sin – in a sermon he offered this piece of advice: “Love and do what you will.”