Activist, scholar Angela Davis talks anti-racism, social justice


Zoom screenshot

Angela Davis, a civil rights activist and philosopher, discussed anti-racism at a Tuesday evening event.

By Maggie Young, Contributing Editor

Activist and scholar Angela Davis told members of the Pitt community on Tuesday that the current reckoning on race relations in the United States is about 150 years too late.

“But of course, as they say, it’s better late than never,” Davis said.

More than 2,200 people attended “A Conversation with Angela Davis” on Tuesday evening, part of the Diversity Forum hosted by Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Davis, a renowned civil rights activist, author and professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, engaged in a dialogue on anti-racism and advocacy.

Provost Ann Cudd and Kathy Humphrey, the senior vice chancellor for engagement, facilitated the conversation with Davis via Zoom, which was then livestreamed on YouTube. Some people in the comments section and on other platforms expressed frustration at the event, calling it disingenuous and performative, considering previous University actions.

The conversation began when Cudd asked Davis to discuss what motivated her advocacy and the experiences that shaped it. Davis, a Birmingham, Alabama, native, said she felt she needed to fight the racism and violence toward Black people she witnessed growing up, particularly the lynching of Emmett Till. But what really pushed Davis was seeing the action of her peers.

“I realized that it was simply not possible to survive with dignity under those conditions without standing up and fighting back,” Davis said.

Cudd then brought the conversation back to racism in the present moment, which largely remained the topic of discussion for the rest of the hourlong session. Davis discussed the pervasiveness of racism in American society, which she said still exists because society has yet to sufficiently address the lingering vestiges of slavery.

“It’s only now that people in mass are recognizing the structures of racism, the ongoing institutionalization of racism, the systemic character of racism that persists regardless of whether people say, ‘I’m not a racist’ or not,” Davis said.

Davis highlighted the importance of the current discussion of racism, prompted by racist atrocities such as the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The discourse surrounding racism needs to evolve, she said, and address systemic racism in addition to specific and personal relationships.

Humphrey then brought up the language people use to address racism and how Davis has contributed to this language, specifically in her advancement of the term anti-racist.

“So many institutions right now are talking about that word anti-racist,” Humphrey said. “I believe some are striving toward that.”

In response to Humphrey’s question of how to be anti-racist, Davis pointed to internal reflection. Institutions, including universities, have historically perpetuated racist and other prejudiced barriers, such as economic discrimination and heteropatriarchy, she said. In order to implement change, institutions need to first analyze how they have been complicit.

Davis alluded to other activists and scholars who have used this line of thinking to reinforce that Black lives matter, such as Keeagna-Yamahtta Taylor and Barbara Ransby.

Cudd then brought up the role of higher education in furthering racism and posed the question of what leaders of higher education, such as herself and Humphrey, can do to dismantle this system. In one attempt to extend the opportunity of attending Pitt to more students, Pitt began matching federal Pell Grant awards last fall, giving additional financial aid to about 5,000 students.

“I think it’s clear that you can see that elite institutions, higher education almost in general, tends not to take from low socioeconomic class, tends to take fewer minoritized individuals,” Cudd said. “Surely there are ways in which higher education can unlock doors to opportunity and to social mobility and to leadership in progressive directions.”

Citing her work as a prison abolitionist, Davis said it is impossible to look “myopically” at specific institutions and hope that solely will bring about change. But she encouraged those subject to discriminatory systems to analyze them.

“It is possible to utilize the institution at the same time as one is critical of it,” Davis said.

In the comments section, audience members discussed the ways Cudd has used her administrative power within the University in the past. Attendees noted that Pitt’s Office of University Counsel has paid more than $1.3 million to “union avoidance” legal firm Ballard Spahr as faculty and graduate students continue their unionization campaigns. Many commented questions for Davis, a known union supporter, about how to proceed when they feel the administration won’t let them unionize.

Davis said universities are not the only system that people part of them should critique. They are also one of many institutions in need of a redesigned conversation about race that shifts from “diversity and inclusion” to ways that actually dismantle the systems that make these discussions necessary.

“That was what I meant by the need to critique the discourse of diversity and inclusion,” Davis said, “which is not a critique of the need to create more diverse populations within these institutions, but it’s a critique of the assumption that diversity by itself is the answer.”