White Skin Privilege
America’s 'original sin' is just one variation
Last week a friend with ties to Africa sent me a picture of some local nuns in Tanzania. Their ministry is to shelter at-risk children. Commenting on the picture, he noted that “All the ‘white’ children are albinos. Nine albinos, none of these pictured here, were killed in 2019 for their pelts.”
Some background might help. The Tanzanian government often moves children with albinism into special schools to protect them. Why? Because these children suffer from discrimination and violence, including killings and trafficking of body parts for witchcraft purposes. They are also victims of infanticide and abandonment.
We hear a great deal about white skin privilege, though the albino children have no such privilege. But for many white Americans an examination of conscience is in order. And not just once. A conversion of heart takes time. After all, history suggests that slavery is America’s original sin. Its effects are persistent and pervasive.
But America’s original sin is just one variation on humankind’s Original Sin. St. Thomas Aquinas sees Original Sin as profoundly wounding our reason and our ability to integrate and direct our passions. A central manifestation of this twofold savaging is our propensity to treat the Other as an enemy rather than a friend.
And who is this Other? Tragically, he or she is anyone whom we see, however irrationally, as a threat. For Cain, the Other is Abel and murder is the consequence. For Dives, the threat is Lazarus, even if he only threatens Dives’s cocoon of complacency. Shameful neglect is the consequence.
Enter the Pharisee. Who is the Other for the Pharisee? The Other is anyone who challenges a sedulously cultivated self-righteous. Doubtless Scripture so often turns our attention to idols because of the near ubiquity of idols in their various forms. And doubtless the Messiah so often turns our attention to Pharisees because the pharisaical option is so tempting.
Time for more context. In the final analysis, structural sin is the sin of flesh-and-blood human beings. Structures can’t examine their consciences; only persons have consciences. But persons can examine their political, and thus structurally expressed, actions. This brings us to the realm of the political Pharisee.
The political Pharisee is keen to purify the past in a zeal to purify the present and even the future. This paradoxical lust for purity readily takes the form of a purge. Yes, why not root out the weeds, all of them, and do so immediately?
Plato, in the Republic, asks the question “Who will watch the watchmen?” Indeed, and what if the purge itself needs a purging? So it was with the French Revolution, the terrorists thought, and thus the Revolution devoured itself, as revolutions often do.
And what of us? There is no shortage of political Pharisees. One type, in praise of progress, tells us that slavery is a thing of the past. But in fact there are more slaves now than at any time in the past. Another sort of Pharisee tells us that slavery is the work of white slavers. But in fact, historically, white slavers bought most slaves from non-whites. To that we might add that contemporary slavers are themselves racially diverse. (Indeed, hell is remarkably diverse; thankfully, heaven is as well.)
Original Sin plays no favorites.