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The challenge of understanding the full dynamics of racism in 2016

May 10, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Rev. David Billings, founder of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, has been working to combat racism for decades. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sits down with Billings to discuss his work helping groups to identify and “undo” institutional discrimination.
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BY KENYA DOWNS

Sunday morning, when churchgoers pile into the pews to hear sermons of love and tolerance, is one of the most segregated experiences in America. For more than three decades Rev. David Billings has been working to change that, tackling the difficult nuances of race and racism in America with his organization the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. They conduct workshops called Undoing Racism and provide training for employers, universities and other organizations that struggle with issues of diversity.

As part of our Race Matters Solutions series, NewsHour special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault talked with Billings about segregation and racism within the religious community.

In the past “white churches barred black people from attending,” he says. “But whites could always attend a black church. In fact they were welcomed.”

There may not be laws banning interracial churches today, but Billings says the climate of white churches can still make non-whites feel just as unwelcome. But he also says separate churches may not be such a bad thing. In fact, a church may be a “sanctuary” not just for religious reasons.

“Church was one place where black people had an hour or two free of white people,” Billings says. “The black community still needs time away from the dominant white culture. Some place where you can take a breath, without answering to whites.”

He uses himself as an analogy. “If you put [a white person like] me amidst of your church, I’m always going to be asking questions. I’m only going to say ‘I don’t think it’s that way,’ or ‘I’m not like that,'” he says. “So I become the center of attention, the attention comes back to me when those in the church want it to be their congregation.”

Diverse places of worship do exist throughout the country but Billing contends we still have a long way to go “because there’s still a false thought that this country has dealt with racism.” As part of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s work, Billing challenges communities and people to redefine racism.

“In this country people can just define racism anyway they want,” he says. “We say ‘no.’ You got to have a definition where it impacts where your organization is going. It has to include your race’s relationship to power in this country.”

Billings acknowledges that his own power stems from being a white man in a nation that he says was designed to benefit him above others. But as America becomes more diverse and the demand for equal opportunity grows, “some white people are feeling that we are not benefiting as much as we should,” he said. It’s a psychological dynamic he describes in his upcoming book, “Deep Denial.”

“Down deep in us, even for those of us who voted for President Obama or have colleagues that are part of our organization, there’s a degree to which we feel whites should be running things,” he says. “And when there isn’t, we get upset about it.”

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HARI SREENIVASAN: But, first, we turn to our on going series Race Matters.

Last night, documentary film maker Ken Burns received the nation’s highest honor for intellectual achievement in the humanities. He delivered the annual Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center, his focus, race in America.

Here, he addresses recent killings of young African-Americans.

KEN BURNS, Filmmaker: Like the amputated limb felt long after it has been cut off, I miss Trayvon Martin. I was once a 17-year-old who wore a hooded sweatshirt walking through unfamiliar neighborhoods, but I was never gunned down.

I miss Tamir Rice too. I was 11 once and played with plastic guns, but no cop ever shot me.

We are missing many hundreds, if not thousands, of African-Americans, lost only because of the color of their skin in just the last decade. Most of the occurrences we documented in our recent Jackie Robinson film, as Brough (ph) said — he crossed the color line, by the way, 69 years ago last month — are happening again in our present day: Confederate Flag issues, driving while black, stop and frisk, burned black churches, integrated suburban swimming pool problems, housing bias, racial taunts, cynical political calculations that ignore African-Americans, and a version of Black Lives Matter, to name just a few.

I do not believe, ladies and gentlemen, there is a hell, as most of our religions reliably report, just the one we humans make for ourselves and each other right here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now we continue with “NewsHour” special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s ongoing look at solutions to America’s enduring race problem.

Tonight, she talks with Reverend David Billings of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an organization that assists other groups trying to overcome racism and its impact.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We caught up with Reverend Billings at one of his organization’s workshops in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he and other trainers discuss their work against racism there and around the country.

WOMAN: We need to be continuing to do this organizing work.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The institute has conducted over a half-million workshops with organizations and institutions ranging from hospitals, local and regional government, to prisons and churches, all dealing with how to identify and combat racism.

Reverend Billings, thank you for joining us.

REV. DAVID BILLINGS, People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond: Well, it’s my honor.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Your organization is over 30 years old, and it was founded to combat racism, among other things. How do you define racism?

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: We define it as race prejudice, plus power.

Individual racism, like how we feel about each other and what we might call each other, is just a byproduct of an arrangement that goes all the way back before the nation’s founding.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you mean?

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: One of the founders’ greatest fears was that poor Europeans who’d come over here as indentured, there was a great a fear that they would join up with the Africans who were being enslaved and indigenous people and overthrow before they even got started.

So, it would be the creation of race that will compromise poor and what we today we’d call working-class whites. And it makes us hesitant, has always made us hesitant to organize with people of color, especially black people.

This country constantly and still does treats racism as it were just a matter of personal relationships. And it’s not, you know? That’s why so many of us who are white can say, well, I’m not racist, you know, I have got friends who are black, all the sort of things.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But there were Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act. Didn’t that change things a little bit?

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: Oh, it changed — you know, they had great impact, the Voting Rights Act and everything, but we have to — we are fighting today to preserve it.

At the People’s Institute, I will speak to people that are white like me. There’s a bitterness, there’s an anger about equal rights, you know?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You experience that? People tell you that?

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

When we first started, no systems were asking us to work with them. None of the great systems like universities or hospitals or health care would even admit that racism was an issue for them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Tell me what you and your organization are doing.

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: We get invited now to be a part of symposiums, to be a part of long-term organizing effort within — given large systems to work with them for a period of months, even years, to analyze how race and racism is impacting their outcomes, their work.

And it’s taking off all around the country. We start off, usually, with a small group of people within a larger system who say, we want to go through one of the undoing racism workshops, because the purpose of the undoing racism workshop is to eventually be the foundation for a longer organizing effort within the institution, understanding racism, its history, you know, its impact today, and how the nation is as it changes, how the racism begins to resist the structural racism, begins to resist societal change.

We do an ongoing community organizing/undoing racism workshop, because it takes us a year or two to cover, say, hundreds of people in the schools of social work of New York City, and we work with every one of them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you find that these people don’t know about race?

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: Yes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what do you find?

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: What we find is that people understand race, but they don’t understand organizing.

You can’t teach racism away. A lot of us think you can. You can’t legislate it away, as important as the Voting Rights Act and things like that are. There’s not one institution in this country where they can say: There’s no racism here. We have solved it.

I come out of the church. You would think the church would be in the lead around tackling racism.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Are white churches doing what they should be doing? I know we’re generalizing, but in general?

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: Very few. Very few, maybe less than there were a generation ago.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I think just about everybody agrees there’s a very toxic atmosphere today. Are you getting more people coming to you or fewer?

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: Yes, we are getting more.

But I — I hear your question. It’s usually, like, people will say, well, you’re speaking to the choir. And we say, yes, but the choir has to practice every Wednesday night, you know? That’s what you got to do. You got to keep going at it.

And if we’re to confront the racism that is out there in this country, we have to — to have our act together. We have got to know what we are doing.

We’re hopeful. You have got to stay hopeful to do this work.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, what’s the solution?

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: You have got to keep the work going. You have got to transfer it.

I’m other — hopeful is that — see, white kids need to be taught very early on. We have to quit protecting white people, even white children, about the realities of race in this country. You know, children are very conscious and in tune with things being fair. You will hear, that’s not fair. You know, we’re talking a brother and sister.

Well, those children are — could be — you know, will understand race. They will understand all of these things. They are not given the opportunity because we protect our children as whites, you know, that that will somehow make them feel bad. I think it’ll make them feel good, because it’ll help them explain some things.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Reverend Billings, thank you for joining us.

REV. DAVID BILLINGS: Thank you for having me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can see more our Race Matters reporting on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

Plus, tune in later tonight. On “Point Taken,” they explore the question, should the U.S. pay reparations to African-Americans?

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