Larry Davis says he was ‘naïve’ about racism when he first started


Larry Davis, the founding director of the Center on Race & Social Problems, reflected on his evolution as an academic at his parting lecture, “A Conversation on Race.” 

There was standing room only at the event on Sept. 18. It also featured presentations from James Huguley, interim director of the center, and John Wallace, a professor with joint appointments in the Katz School of Business and the Department of Sociology in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences.

Davis is the founding director of the center, which was established in 2001 within the School of Social Work. He said without the progressive thinking of former Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, the center would not be where it is today.

At the time, it was rare for universities to create centers that focused on race. It was also considered controversial to simply use the word “race” in the title at the time, Davis said.

“He took a risk that other places wouldn’t have taken,” Davis said. 

Davis, who retired from his director position in July, reminisced on how his opinions on slavery, mental health and race relations in the U.S. have evolved since he began researching what was known as “the race problem” in the 1960s. 

He admitted that he was “embarrassed at how grossly naive I was about racism” at the time. His goals, he said, were to combine his knowledge of psychology with the practical application of social work.

“As a young social worker, social psychologist, I believed that racism was foremost an interpersonal problem,” Davis said. “The problem, as put forth by us social scientists, was being one of negative beliefs, attitudes, ignorance, authoritarian personalities, misunderstandings and mental illness.”

It was a struggle to get funding to study race over the years, he said, and a majority of the funding was provided by mental health organizations such as the National Institute of Mental Health. 

“I once said to a funder (that) I had to make everyone mentally ill in order to get funding,” he joked.

Initially, he and other social workers believed that diversity, or getting people together to just improve understanding between groups, would get the race problem to “work itself out.”

But after studying race for several decades, he said he realized that the problem was rooted in more than just interpersonal relations.

“It took me decades to come to the very unpleasant fact that it is very difficult to get someone to change his or her mind about something if they perceive it not to be in their social or economic interest to do so,” Davis said. “This is perhaps the most disturbing realization that I had in my lifetime. I really thought that the main source of racism was not foremost the function of negative attitudes or ignorance, but rather it was driven by desire for advantage, be it social or economic.”

He said a line from the seminal play “A Raisin in the Sun” best captured this realization. One of the characters in the play gets in an argument when he wants to buy a liquor store against his mother’s wishes.

“And the son says, ‘Oh, we need money to get money so we can do things,’ ” Davis said, paraphrasing the argument. “And the mother says, ‘Wow, now it’s all about money. Everything’s all about money. In my day, … it was all justice and freedom. And now it’s all about money.’ ‘Everything’s all about money,’ the son says. ‘It was always about money, Mama, we just didn’t know it.’

“It’s always about money. Slavery was about money,” Davis said. “That’s why it’s slow to change, and that’s why it’s been so difficult.” 

This realization changed his approach to studying race and gave him new insights into the devastating legacy that slavery had and continues to have on African-Americans.

“It dawned on me that slavery lasted for 246 years,” he said. “Now, it wasn’t like the country had a bad day or a bad week or a bad administration. The Nazis were only in power for 13 years. I mean, two and a half centuries, everybody bought into this. The Supreme Court, presidents were slave owners.”

The former director closed his speech by saying that now is a great time to be a race scholar as the U.S. grapples with the Internet and social media exposing racist attitudes to large audiences.

“Studying race is different than studying other problems facing our country,” he said. “Most areas that professionals address do not have adversaries. … For example, few people are against addressing the issues of health, mental health or child abuse. 

“However, lots of people, too many in fact, are against addressing and attempting to improve race relations, eliminating racial inequities, or even talking about race. To study race, people who do this business, you have powerful adversaries. Success is more difficult for you.”

Davis said he plans to expand on his latest book “Why Are They Angry With Us: Essays on Race.” And while this presentation was advertised as his parting lecture from the school, Huguley said Davis will continue his scholarship.

His legacy as director will be honored through the new Larry Davis Excellence and Race Research Award, which the center will give annually to a race scholar.

“I don’t want anyone to be fooled to think he’s parting from this work, or his connection to us, the connection to the School of Social Work or the University,” Huguley said. “He still got the look in his eyes. He’s going to be working.” 

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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