The audience was rapt. David Billings, a southern minister from Mississippi speaking in the bosom of a Long Island/New York Jewish congregation is an unusual event. But the times demand new responses, and this event was a response to the racism that has been unleashed since the election of the new President.
This audience was comprised mainly of people who were descendants of those who fled attempts at their annihilation. There may even have been some survivors of the holocaust in our midst. I was invited by my son, who was invited by a high-school friend who herself has spent much of her time working against structural racism. The audience was 99 percent white, with several African Americans attending as well. It was also predominantly Jewish since the event was held in a local synagogue. For the preponderance of the attendees, the urgency was how to quell the rising racism and nationalism that is threatening the laws and institutions of our country.
Reverend Billings has recently written a book called Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life in which he addresses the deeply systemic racism that pervades our lives. Originally from Mississippi, Reverend Billings has witnessed firsthand the violence and injustice of racism. When he was a teenager, one of his uncles was killed by a black man. Another uncle refused to allow the Klan members who arrived at their home to seek revenge, saying “we are not that kind of people.” As a result of this incident, Reverend Billings has spent a lifetime “studying” racism and its roots. He is now on tour sharing his thoughts about what he has learned in an effort to get at the deeper conversation about racism that is so needed, yet so difficult to have.
As he led the audience through the chronology of the emergence of white supremacy in our country, and in the world, he referred to the selective history we have all been taught in school. This is a history that has been “white-washed,” pun intended, to avoid acknowledging the priviledge that white people have carved out for themselves throughout history. He asked the audience the pointed questions: How did we become white? What do we like about being white? Who is included in the definition of white? How has white supremacy affected our national policies and institutions? What can we do about it?
At the close of his presentation, Reverend Billings responded to questions from the audience, some of which were about deeply sensitive issues: Why do some of the proponents of Black Lives Matter harbor such animosity toward Jews? What do you recommend we do to start addressing our personal and institutional racism? What kind of endgame is Steve Bannon playing with our nation’s most revered laws and institutions? How can we respond to acts of racism in meaningful ways?
Many of his answers centered around becoming more knowledgeable about racism by learning its actual history and becoming more familiar with our own inherent racism by studying it in groups of like-minded people. There are no easy, simple recipes for defeating racism.
I left with his book in hand, eager to read about what he has learned, and interested in exploring my own as well as my nation’s roots in racism in an effort to address these issues personally, professionally, as a citizen, and as a member of the global community. It’s work that must be done for the good of us all.