By Rob Montana
To say David Billings has devoted his life to promoting racial justice would be a vast understatement. A leader of workshops for the anti-racist training organization, New Orleans-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, and community organizer, he has traversed the country working to educate others.
Billings connection to the local community is deep – his aunt, Peggy Billings, resides in Trumansburg, and he spent a lot of time in Ithaca during a period between 2005-09, working with local educators to help them understand structural racism and how it affected students in the school systems.
“It became a regular thing, where I came every few months,” he said. “The school system should be one of the major bulwarks against structural racism, but it was not equipped to deal with it.”
Billings, who saw his first book – titled “Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in the United States History and Life” – published in October, spoke in Ithaca last month about his work. He comes to the subject with first-hand experiences of growing up in the Deep South. When his uncle was murdered by a man of color in McComb, Mississippi, family members resisted calls from members of the Ku Klux Klan to go after the perpetrator and his family.
“No, that’s not what we want,” he wrote, remembering another uncle’s response to the Klan members offer, in the prologue. “We are not that kind of family.”
This is how the book begins, setting the format – chapters lead with Billings recalling situations in his life, followed with a recap of the history from that same period. He covers a lot of ground with historical context, offering insight into how the system of white supremacy has developed in the U.S., from colonial Virginia to its continued presence today.
“I resisted the idea of a memoir, but I felt this style did work,” Billings said. “I was born in 1946, so I thought I could take a decade, tell a story about what was going on in my life and then talk about what was going on in the nation.
“I wanted to look at what messages white people receive and how that internalized racial superiority,” he added, “and how people of color internalized internalized inferiority.”
He said he tried hard to be truthful about his own experiences, noting there are incidents in his past of which he is not proud.
“But it is part of my story,” Billings said.
Using the term “white supremacy” often provokes a strong reaction, particularly among white people don’t see themselves that way. In fact, it can create a defensive mindset when conversations around the topic arise.
“In terms of the book, when a lot of people hear white supremacy, they’re hearing the Klan, skinheads, white nationalists, who have always been there but are now feeling empowered,” Billings said. “But that’s not really who I mean. For me, white supremacy is a structural phenomenon, it points to what Margery Freeman (Billings’s wife) would call the ‘knowing class,’ people who are aware of and opposed to racism but don’t do anything about it.
“The ‘knowing class’ in every profession would espouse anti-racism,” he added, “but if you don’t organize against it, you maintain it. It is a social construct.”
Billings first came to Ithaca when he was working with a group of social workers in New York City to help organize education regarding the social construct of racism, particularly for college students preparing to enter the field of social work.
“I was struck by the fact none of the schools were teaching this,” he said. “The students, they knew once they graduated from college they were most likely going to be employed in a community of color, with a long history of racism, but they were not being equipped to handle that.
“Many would enter those situations and be faced with realities they were totally unprepared for,” Billings added. “How do you work in a field like that? And how can you present yourself to educate students for a profession, knowing this, and not equip your graduates to deal with it?”
Finding common ground – or at least being able about the backgrounds of others that have shaped their perceptions – will go a long way toward being able to have a constructive dialogue on ways to combat structural racism.
“I find it interesting that we’re hearing whites saying they are feeling alienated, but you never hear them saying they’re going to band together with poor people of other ethnic backgrounds,” Billings said. “Those who understood race have always divided us.”
That speaks to feelings raised during the 2016 Presidential campaign, and the clear divide shown among voters in the country. Billings said society is once again facing a crossroads.
“In Ithaca and Tompkins County … I wish the whole nation would do as many things as you’re trying to do here,” he said. “There is no magic wand here. No one is going to come in and solve this. We all have to come together and tackle the issue – that’s how the nation changes.”
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Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in the United States History and Life is available for purchase at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca.