Q&A with Dean, Professor, and Author Larry E. Davis

Issue Date: 
March 14, 2016

Larry Davis’s book, Why Are They Angry With Us?, addresses questions and conflicts about race in America from personal and psychological perspectives. Davis, who is dean of Pitt’s School of Social Work as well as director and founder of the Center on Race and Social Problems, uses theory to explore racial incidents and to illuminate the workings of race and racism in America. The book is a direct response to many of the sensitive conversations about race relations that are being discussed in all forms of media today.

You wrote this book for the general public as opposed to other academicians. Why?

Larry E. DavisI wanted to have a broad appeal. I thought the topic transcended academia and that it would be good for non-academics to have the opportunity to consider racial issues in a thoughtful way. It was not written for Cornel West [an American philosopher, academic, and social activist]. Perhaps some academics who are not in the social sciences might find the book meaningful in exploring why race works as it does. For example, the book’s one essay on “Why Can’t Blacks Be Like Immigrants?” addresses a reasonable question and one that many people have.  

Can you discuss the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance and your belief that it allows some people to hold racist views and act in a racist manner?

Cognitive dissonance theory says that we have an inner drive to hold our attitudes and behaviors in agreement. Attitudes serve to justify behavior. It is also true that attitudes follow behaviors; so if you change your behavior, you are also likely to adopt a change in attitude. If, for example, my attitude toward you is good, it would be difficult for me to treat you badly. I believe that negative behavior toward people often stems from a desire to sustain negative attitudes about them. Hence, I argue in the book that racism followed the desire to exploit, i.e. slavery. Once we have the desire to exploit people, we have to engage in negative attitudes [racism] to justify that behavior. 

Your mother’s father was White, and your mother was often mistaken for a White person. Yet none of this was ever discussed within your family. What does that say about our reluctance to discuss race?

This took place because the social protocol of the South did not allow for the acknowledgment of racial mixing. It was denied, so the result was that we did not acknowledge Black-White offspring. For Black Americans, it was denied, in part, because there was no means of retribution. There was nothing they could do about it. Hence, the shame and guilt that such mixed offspring brought was not discussed. It was a topic that White Americans did not want discussed, and Black Americans were both ashamed and fearful of discussing it. 

How did you talk to your own three sons about race? What was it that you wanted them to know and to understand?

I want my sons to know that injustice will always be justified. Those who are in power will create whatever rationales necessary to sustain their injustice. In America, it follows a Black/White paradigm, but this phenomenon is true for the world. I raised my sons to be leaders in Black America. My aspiration and challenge for them is to assume leadership positions wherever they are to fight for racial justice.  

You say it infuriates you when successful Blacks who rise from a poor socioeconomic background are pointed to as proof that anyone can make it in this world if they just work hard. Why?

People who ask this question often assume that the playing field is level. Underneath this suggestion is the assumption that the poor standing or situation for the majority of Black Americans is of their own doing. 

Such people suggest that I am living proof that if you want to accomplish something in life, you can do it. This is absolutely not the case. The odds of my being where I am today are astronomical. My success is akin to walking through a mine field and surviving. Most of my friends and fellow classmates did not survive. 

Those who argue that success is up to the individual will ignore the fact that they themselves spend tremendous time and resources on their own children. They make sure their own children have all sorts of environmental advantages: schools, cultural exposure, travel, similarly situated friends, and social networking opportunities. The contradiction is that if success in life depends solely on an individual’s will or motivation, it would not be necessary for them to intervene so directly in the lives of their own children. 

The majority of successful people are likely a combination of some hard work, a great deal of privilege, and at least some good fortune. But those in privileged positions would have us believe that they are where they are solely as a function of their own initiative and hard work.