One of the most compelling talks about race I’ve ever heard was given by David Billings, who spoke recently at Hayden-Clark Alumni Center on Bradley University’s campus.
Billings is an anti-racist trainer and organizer with the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond. Looking at this diminutive, gray-headed white man, I was not prepared for the words he spoke.
He was born in Mccomb, MS., grew up in Helena, AR. an ordained United Methodist Minister. Billings is the author of “Deep Denial; the persistence of white supremacy in United States history & life. He is the winner of 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the current experts and social change category.
Dr. Portia Adams, Director & Associate Professor of Social Work at Bradley was instrumental in bringing David Billings to Peoria. Adams and Billings have known each other for many years.
Billings began by stating that racism can’t be educated away, legislated away, it must be organized away. To organize, relationships must be built, bringing those close to you closer. One must act and not apologize for their actions.
He gave two examples of when the United States decided to do something, and it was done. First was in the 1950’s when polio was an epidemic in this country and the second was when President Kennedy declared in the early 60’s that the United States would send a man to the moon within that decade.
Billings stated that every white person benefits in this racialized society and if every white person became a force of change to undo racism it wouldn’t take so long. If every institution, every system was told they couldn’t exist, unless they understood this country’s race constructs.
It is necessary that the truth of this country’s history be told, and not just from one perspective. Billings said only white people don’t have to understand race, it’s required for every other group of people to understand for their very survival.
America was founded by people, who believed they were ordained by God to populate the earth. The whole idea of white was a creation by European leaders. They figured out, when they sent poor Europeans to America, how to keep them from connecting with the Indigenous People and the enslaved Africans, by making white superior. The wealth of this nation was based on the enslavement of African people and killing of Native Americans. Everything, every white person has, is based on the enslavement of African people.
Race is about a structural arrangement that is infused in every systemic structure in our society. White people are oblivious to this arrangement. Europeans became white in the United States in relationship to Africans being black. It is a designation to access to power, not ethnicity.
Billings talked about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that brought an end to the Mexican American War in 1848. In that treaty Mexico ceded 50% of their territory, which extended the United States borders by 525,000 sq. miles. That same year gold was discovered in California and the Gold Rush of 1849 made America the richest nation ever in the world.
He also talked about the 13th Amendment, which has a comma, not a period after it states slavery is abolished. It continues after the comma to state except when it comes to imprisoning people. Billings said you can tell if racism exists in any society, by looking at its prisons and foster care system.
Billing’s took questions afterwards. The first question asked his opinion about Trump’s influence on today’s racial climate. He said the dynamics has always existed; they have been waiting for the opportunity for someone to speak their truth. He went on to explain, that he believed that their anger is based on the internalization of the lie–where in the beginning of this nation, what they called “a social contract,” that each generation would live better than the previous one.
In response to a question, on what white people could do, to overcome the stigma of Peoria in light of the Wall Street 24/7 Report. Billings said, the white community should take leadership from the black community, “something white people have a difficult time doing.” He stated when Black America organizes the nation changes. He said Peorians should look for opportunities to learn from each other, and to be intentional about it. In reference to the closing of the two Kroger Stores in the most distressed areas of Peoria, he believes white people must make it known that this decision is unacceptable.
He told a young Bradley student, who questioned how students should respond to criticism of them challenging blatant racism, “to do what they had to do, that it has always been young people, who dared to take it to the streets.”
He concluded by saying that racism was done, and if it was done, it can be undone. It must be organized against with vigor and clarity. We must have our voices heard and loudly so. It will not be easy, but it is necessary.
Mr. Billings book Deep Denial was written to and for white people. In it he deals with each decade of his own life, owning both the things he is proud of and things that he is ashamed of. I hope everyone that attended this talk will buy the book, read the book, and share the book.