faith in action

Undoing racism: What white clergy can do to help

White supremacy is both a product of history and a very real present reality. There is education that white people, and white clergy specifically, need to undergo — and lead others in — to engage in the dismantling of racism.

Today is the 54th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This act of hate, led by the KKK, killed four girls and injured 22 others.

Far-right demonstrators and white nationalists killed one and wounded 19 others in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month.

Many were shocked that such an event could occur in 2017. However, racism and hate persist outside of these visible manifestations.

The Rev. Jasper Peters, a United Methodist clergyperson from Denver, Colorado, responded to these and other sentiments regarding Charlottesville on Facebook:

As Peters points out, racism and hate persist outside of the visible manifestations of murders and KKK marches. White people have a responsibility to shoulder in the work of anti-racism. Much of that work begins with education.

The Rev. Clayton Childers of Church and Society recently interviewed the Rev. David Billings. Billings is a United Methodist clergyperson who has spent his career working to undo racism. He is also the author of “Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life.”

The conversation, slightly edited for clarity and length, is below. It begins to address the education that white people, and white clergy specifically, need to undergo — and lead others in — to engage in the dismantling of racism.

The deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair in 1963 and Heather Heyer in 2017 do not only remind us of racism’s visible and ugly face. These deaths also call every person to account for their participation in dismantling in its less overt, systemic manifestation.

In light of the attack and violence we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia, many people want to join in efforts to fight racism. As a white Southerner and clergy who has spent most of your career working in this field, do you have suggestions?

I think there is a special need for white clergy to get involved and there are many things we can do to respond to the racially-based hatred roiling this country.

The first thing we must do is take responsibility for educating ourselves and our congregations about racism and white supremacy. Racism is much more than good/bad race relations. It is more than an individual failing or personal prejudice based on skin color. Racism is a social structure, a social construct. To address this system, we must get an understanding of what race is, why it is and how to build a strategy to undo racism.

Racism is a structural problem that supports white supremacy. Most clergy are not equipped to deal with racism. In this country, white people don’t have to have an understanding of it. We can just have opinions about it or experiences with race that become our truth.

The U.S. is becoming more and more ethnically and racially diverse. What effect will this have on racism moving forward?

It is not a numbers game. It is about who controls the systems sanctioned by the state. As our society becomes more and more made up of diverse cultures, our lack of racial literacy will become more and more of a clash between so-called minority groups and the dominant culture of white people.

While race was invented by white people and is ultimately a white problem, we cannot lead ourselves out of this wilderness without guidance from those people of color (especially black people) who have had to understand race as a survival issue. White people have not had to understand it for survival. This requires study and preparation, and white people have to become accustomed to taking leadership from those who have been most negatively impacted by race. We are so used to being the ones in control. It is part of the subconscious internalization of racial superiority that I talk about in the book.

Do you think that it will be possible to convert people like the white nationalists, the extreme elements?

The haters we focus on are just symptoms of a much larger problem that has evolved from the very origins of the nation when race was used to establish pecking orders of power and privilege. This structure worked to ensure that white people, even the poorest and most oppressed of us, align ourselves with those white people most privileged and culturally powerful rather than join others economically and systemically marginalized in our society.

Explore More

  • “Deep Denial,” the book by Billings, clearly and concisely tells the truth about racism in the U.S. The book recounts the laws and programs that, from the country’s founding, built a nation constructed around race and white racial supremacy. It tells this story while also articulating, in a confessional way, the author’s personal story of growing up white in the South in the 1960s and 70s.
  • United Methodist Insight reported on Billings’ life, ministry and book.
  • The General Commission on Religion and Race has a great toolkit for ministry post-Charlottesville.