1. The Return of Original Sin
Every day she must search her conscience. Every day she must confront her flaws—discern the dark that dwells within her, seek the grace to turn toward the light. Oh, she is a moral person, she believes: good willed and determined to do good deeds, instructing us all about the heart’s deep iniquity. But even she, Kim Radersma, a former schoolteacher now preaching our bondage to sin—even she still feels the fault inside her. Even she must struggle to be saved. And if someone like Kim Radersma has to fight the legacy of inner evil, think of all that you must do. Think how far you are from grace, when you do not even yet know that you are lost and blind.
In another age, Radersma might have been a revivalist out on the sawdust circuit, playing the old forthright hymns on a wheezy harmonium as the tent begins to fill. In a different time, she might have been a temperance lecturer, inveighing in her passion-raw voice against the evils of the Demon Rum. In days gone by, she might have been a missionary to heathen China, or an author of Bible Society tracts, or the Scripture-quoting scourge of civic indifference—railing to the city-council members that they are like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:16, neither hot nor cold, and God will spew them from his mouth.
But all such old American Christian might-have-beens are unreal in the present world, for someone like Kim Radersma. Mockable, for that matter, and many of her fellow activists today identify Christianity with the history of all that they oppose. She wouldn’t know a theological doctrine or a biblical quotation if she ran into it headlong. And so Radersma now fights racism: the deep racism that lurks unnoticed in our thoughts and in our words and in our hearts.
The better to gird herself for the struggle, she gave up teaching high-school students to attend the Ph.D. program in Critical Whiteness Studies at Ontario’s Brock University. But even such total immersion is not enough to wash away the stain of inherited sin. “I have to every day wake up and acknowledge that I am so deeply embedded with racist thoughts and notions and actions in my body,” she testified to a teachers’ conference on white privilege this spring. “I have to choose every day to do antiracist work and think in an antiracist way.”
Radersma is hardly alone in feeling this way (except perhaps for the peculiar bit about racist actions in her body). Discussions of the kind of racial privilege that she hates have been much in the news. A Prince-ton undergraduate named Tal Fortgang, for example, received considerable notice for a student newspaper column in which he recounted the Holocaust suffering and hard work of his family, all to explain why he rejected Ivy League demands that he identify himself as racially and economically privileged. Television host Bill O’Reilly mocked a “Checking Your Privilege” orientation program at Harvard, claiming to be exempt from white privilege himself because he had to find jobs while he was young. And the response from any number of commentators was that Fortgang and O’Reilly just didn’t get it. Just didn’t grasp the insidious way the shared guilt of racism appears in the form of white privilege. Just didn’t see their own sinfulness.
So profound is the sin, in fact, that not even its proponents escape. The more they are aware of white privilege, the more they see it everywhere, even in themselves. “There is not space here to list all the ways in which white privilege plays out, but it is clear that I will carry this privilege with me until the day white supremacy is erased,” admitted University of Texas professor Robert Jensen in an essay assigned to Wisconsin high-school students in 2013. At the Daily Beast website, columnist Sally Kohn added that “racial bias is baked” into American history. “It’s just something we all learn to do.” She did note the nearly universal condemnation that met explicitly racist comments from the likes of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and California billionaire Donald Sterling this year. But all that, she insisted, actually distracts from awareness of the real racism that dwells in every white American heart.