Book Review: Wired For Racism? How Evolution and Faith Move Us to Challenge Racial Idolatry by James Woodall and Mark Ellingsen

[1] Wired For Racism opens with a helpful introduction that sets a foundation for the chapters to come. Readers learn about the dichotomy between the authors, with Woodall being “a millennial Black Baptist preacher” and Ellingsen “a baby boomer, a White minister” (Norwegian-American Lutheran.)[1] This contrast is important because it sheds light on the minds behind this work and how they are representative of the culture and society we live in today. Woodall and Ellingsen also share their purpose for publishing this book: to help readers “understand how racism appears in America today [and] why it keeps appearing” in the hope that readers will be able to “deconstruct the mind’s biases, rebuild our human consciousness, destroy idolatry, and ultimately suggest ways to free the land so all of God’s creatures can embrace their full selves.”[2]

[2] The first chapter presents a statistical framework for the presence of racism in America. From racism in our criminal justice system to governmental complicity in racism in the fields of medicine and education, Woodall and Ellingsen work to lay everything out on the table when it comes to the state of racism in America today. I had two reactions while reading this chapter. As a Black reader, much of this did not come as a surprise to me. These statistics have, regrettably, become facts of life for an overwhelming majority of Black Americans. On the flip side, as a first-generation American, seeing these statistics was shocking. It is hard to grapple with how this level of racism (in ever-changing forms) has continued to deeply permeate almost every facet of American culture for so long. With so many areas affected, it does make me wonder how any of this can truly get fixed. I did, however, find hope in this text as Woodall and Ellingsen write that “without understanding the foundation of racism within our society, it is nearly impossible to understand why we are truly wired for racism as individuals.” [3] It is with the understanding of the true nature of our society that we are able to begin moving forward.  Woodall and Ellingsen are on the right path for helping us begin that journey.

[3] In the second chapter, readers get a look into what Woodall and Ellingsen refer to as “the ontology of race.” This ontology of race is mainly presented from the White point of view. For myself, this chapter was fascinating. When Woodall and Ellingsen write about how “Whites (especially liberals) want the approval of the sons and daughters of Africa in America” or how “White people who have friends of another race are less inclined to be overt racists” [4]I can immediately picture people within my spheres of influence and experience who fit these descriptions to a tee. When they describe how Whites may be “less [inclined] to challenge what seems to be working, not ask the hard question about whether [their] programs might reflect inherent biases”[5] or how “even White liberals and progressives would have to begin challenging the things they’ve been doing for/to the Black community in a way few are brave and self-reflective enough to do”[6] I can picture systems and institutions that fit this as well. It is refreshing to read the recognition of these shortcomings of our society, especially as it has continued to lean into the inequitable meritocracy it is today.

[4] As a former pre-med student, I found chapter three to be fascinating. The ways in which neuroscience (specifically neurobiology) shows that we are all neurologically wired for racial biases flips the notion that racism is simply rooted in social conditioning. Woodall and Ellingsen use scientific scrutiny to complexify the nature versus nurture argument. As a reader, I do wish this chapter had been longer. As we continue to address the inherent racial biases within us, I am curious as to how Woodall and Ellingsen would use these findings to address how the ways in which children are raised could impact the degree to which we process our amygdala’s response to our racial biases. Tying this chapter into chapter four, I am led to wonder how a reevaluation of our faith can assist in challenging our racial biases. Woodall and Ellingsen describe how in different areas of the Christian tradition, such as in the writings of Pope John Paul II and Rev. Jemar Tisby,[7] our faith calls us to challenge these systems of racism and live in unity and harmony with one another. They note the challenge of living out this cooperative nature within the current realities of racism.[8]

[5] I would describe the final chapter of Wired for Racism as the how-to guide for what readers can do next in the continuing work of dismantling racism in American society. In some ways, I enjoyed this chapter. Woodall and Ellingsen were able to provide concrete and (for places in America with the resources to do so) tangible ways to start laying the foundations for change. As a seminarian, I was left wanting more when it comes to the Church’s role in this work. While the authors draw on Christian practices as a foundation for why this work needs to be done, there is a lack of discussion regarding how this same racism runs rampant within Christianity, how Christianity influences racism in America, and how we as theologians and ministers need to work together with our congregations to break that down as well.

[6] Overall I enjoyed reading Wired for Racism? How Evolution and Faith Move Us to Challenge Racial Idolatry. While there were areas that left me wanting more, I was still blown away by the resource that has been created by Woodall and Ellingsen. I would definitely add this to recommended reading lists for those looking into racial justice and reconciliation work and am excited to see what future research and resources can come out of this work.


[1] Pages 11-12

[2] Pages 11-12

[3] Pages 54-55

[4] Page 63

[5] Page 64

[6] Page 65

[7] Page 93

[8] Page 93-94

Chantal Branker

Chantal Branker is a student at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is working on a Masters of Divinity degree with a focus on Womanist Theology.