Larry Davis first asked himself the question when he was 6 or 7 years old, while he was walking down the street.
“If we were slaves, why are they angry with us?”
“They,” meaning white people, who continued exploiting people of color long after slavery.
The question stayed with Davis, now the dean of Pitt’s School of Social Work and the founder of the school’s Center on Race and Social Problems, eventually becoming the title of his latest book, “Why Are They Angry With Us?: Essays on Race.”
During a lecture about the book on Wednesday at the O’Hara Student Center, Davis said he started off as a psychologist with the wrong assumption: If we could change people’s attitudes, we would be OK. Davis mentioned a disillusioning truth he learned: Racism and racial bias is fundamentally about advantage — whether monetary, social or otherwise. At the talk, which was the first installment of Pitt’s Year of Diversity Book Club meeting, Davis mentioned how a sense of a higher social status can also be an advantage.
“That was really an insight,” Davis said. “It was about advantage. It’s that people first come to desire to exploit, and then comes the justification for the exploitation. I never really thought of it that way.”
The “unpleasant” truth of advantage and the ways in which people maintain their own changed his views.
“It changed my whole notion of why things worked as they did,” Davis said. “It wasn’t just a matter of us having some contact and becoming closer and friendlier. There’s a reason why — I can make money if I can keep you in a lower spot.”
Davis also touched on psychological theory relating to cognitive dissonance, which is the idea that behaviors and attitudes need to coincide, saying that the attitudes relating to injustice sustains the behavior of acting unjustly.
“The long and short of it is that if we do injustice to people, we have to hate them for it,” Davis said. “We have to give them both barrels … Basically, it has to do with, ‘How can I treat you this way and still have some self-respect?’ … Well, I devalue you.”
Before the event, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion asked Pitt students, “Why do you think it is important to talk about how race impacts American society today?” on MyPitt. According to Lisa Garland, the diversity and multi-cultural program manager of Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, 27 students submitted responses.
Two Pitt students read their responses before Davis spoke: Syed Kaleem, a senior natural sciences major, and Sean Champagne, a third-year student at Pitt’s School of Law.
Kaleem said he found the question compelling when he saw it on his MyPitt page.
“Race is that issue which has primarily shaped American society and its politics since the nation’s founding,” Kaleem said in his response. “To disregard race is to abandon the fundamental pushback which has led to significant presidencies, constitutional amendments, today’s polarized politics and even the bipolar development of urban centers.”
Before reading his response, Champagne joked that while law students usually pride themselves on their memory skills, he needed to read his off a paper.
“Of the many unsolved problems in American society, the problem of racial injustice is the most pervasive and the least understood,” Champagne said in his response.
Nancy Kriek, the deaf services specialist for Disability Resources and Services for Pitt’s Student Affairs, said it’s great that Pitt students have access to resources like Davis and his book.
“I think it’s important to have events like this because if you’re not in a particular group, you don’t have perspective,” Kriek said.
Davis said the nation “is just starting to talk” about slavery — with films such as “12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained” and “The Birth of a Nation” –– though slavery itself existed for 246 years, a longer length of time than since slavery ended in the United States in 1865.
Despite cultural representation of racial issues, Jaime Booth, an assistant professor at Pitt’s School of Social Work, said talking more about race and racial issues is better than possibly talking too little.
“I think the more we can talk about race in America, the better,” Booth said. “The better we’ll be moving forward.”
Davis said he didn’t write his book for Cornel West –– an American philosopher and social activist –– but for people who don’t study race and racism.
“More than anything in my life, I wanted my work to be useful,” Davis said. “And I thought this kind of book might be the best shot I had at doing that.”