Leaders of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presbyteries and synods took a long hard look at white privilege in their denomination during a series of plenary sessions at the 2016 Polity Conference.

And most did not like what they saw.

An ordination system biased toward people who “act and talk Presbyterian,” who are trained primarily to be pastors of white congregations; meetings that are always conducted in English; a compensation system that results in congregations only getting the pastors they can afford; worship and decision-making practices that glorify the written word; use of the term “racial ethnic” as if whiteness is the norm. 

These were among examples given by participants when asked to think about ways the church maintains and legitimizes white supremacy.

The sessions on race were led by consultants from Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training, an organization that has worked for three decades to provide organizing, training, and consulting to institutions striving to dismantle racism.

Data from the Pew Research Center shows that “70 percent of white adults think that racism is just about individual prejudice,” said consultant Lori Adams. She suggested a better definition of racism: race prejudice plus the misuse of power by systems and institutions.

In a plenary session on “Becoming an Antiracist Multicultural Institution,” participants sought to place the PC(USA) on a six-stage continuum that moved from “exclusive” to “fully inclusive.” Most saw the denomination as somewhere in the middle.

The consensus: “The promised land is far off. We’re on the way, but not as far as we thought.”

“Many congregations are not motivated to talk about racism,” said one participant, “particularly when there are more pressing concerns.”

“White supremacy is not just people in hoods,” said Crossroads consultant Jessica Vazquez Torres. “We all are complicit in systemic racism.”

Often the movement of white churches toward becoming more inclusive begins in response to outside cultural shifts, Torres said. They are forced to change “in order to stay relevant.”

Some denominations seek to change by restructuring and recruiting more nonwhite leaders and committee members. But “you cannot get there merely by restructuring,” Torres said. “We must change the culture. We must be internally driven by the need to be different, not just to look different.”

Education about the systemic aspect of racism is “an incredibly important tool,” Adams said. She suggested having forums and workshops or encouraging church members to read the book Waking Up White, by Debby Irving, a white woman who tells the story of her own uncomfortable journey toward understanding systemic racism. 

To address racism, “we have to think about systems, not just about our individual prejudices,” Torres said. “It’s not just a matter of whether we like each other.” 

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