Monday, March 24, 2008

Race and Social Problems: Interview with Dean Larry E. Davis

[Episode 36] Today's podcast is on Race and Social Problems. On January 15, 2008, I spoke with Dr. Larry E. Davis, Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, the Donald M. Henderson Professor, and Director of the Center on Race and Social Problems. In our conversation, Dean Davis defined racism, the role of race in understanding social problems, and about how issues of race may or may not change as the percentage of whites in the United States continues to decrease discussed. We talked about some of the racial and gender issues in the current election and talked about how race is different from gender as a point of diversity. We also talked about race and social work, and what social workers can do to fight racism. We ended our conversation with a discussion of the Center on Race and Social Problems and what the Center is doing to fight racism.

Download MP3 [45:17]

Dean Davis received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan's dual-degree program in social work and psychology in 1977. His professional interests include interracial group dynamics, the impact of race, gender, and class on interpersonal interactions, African American family formation, and youth. Prior to becoming the Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh in 2001, Dr. Davis had been a faculty member since 1977 at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was a Professor of Social Work and Psychology and the holder of the E. Desmond Lee Chair in Ethnic and Racial Diversity.

He has received research funding from sources such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and National Institute of Mental Health. Dean Davis is the recipient of the University of Pittsburgh's Chancellor's 2007 Affirmative Action Award.


Jonathan Singer: So Dean Davis, I’m wondering if you can define for us what you mean when you say race and what you mean by social problems, what is a social problem and what makes something a social problem.

Larry Davis: Okay the first one, what is race, is the more difficult of the two questions by a long shot. There are people who sort of talk about the myth of race; that there is no race human race, but for practical terms it’s a social construction that people do recognize, that people are different colors, and people belong to what people consider major racial groups. For practical purposes I will be speaking here in America. For Americans the major definition has been color, unlike some other countries which define people by other definitions. For example I was in Singapore some many years ago and I saw a person, and I asked a native there what race was that person, and he said, “Oh well he’s Malaysian”, I said “What about the next person?” and he said, “Well he is Chinese”, and the person who was Chinese was much darker than I am and I’m black, this guy was much darker than I am. So I realized we had a problem. I said, “This guy’s not Chinese”, he said, “Oh no, he’s Chinese; he talks Chinese, he walks Chinese”, he was defining people culturally. In America that doesn’t wash. America defines people racially, they don’t care what language you speak or food you eat it’s sort of, that if you look black you are black. An example of this is Tiger Woods; he has tried desperately to be classified as something else but America and the world will continue to classify him as black. People sort of wonder why in New Orleans, why was New Orleans sort of the only place where we had terms like mulattos. You figured we had slavery all over the country, why New Orleans, why this little place where we sort of had mulattos and octoroons. That’s because the French basically had a different notion of people and identification, and who is black and who is white, they sort of made these gradations. Fortunately for African Americans, I think that the British really were the ones who took the lead and decided anyone who had any black lineage was black. So what that meant was you had this huge group of black people who despite their color gradations were all black. I mean, Colin Powell is black as is Lena Horne, as is Tiger Woods, as is Sidney Poitier. I mean, you have people of great gradations so it doesn’t matter what color they were as long as they were recognizably as having African ancestry. It may work differently for some of the new groups coming along. There may be a difference with Amer-Asian children, but in America this has been going on for 400 years; basically union of African Americans with other populations, and if you have an African American and an Asian you don’t have some sort of Asian person, you have some sort of black person…..

Jonathan Singer: It’s the one drop rule.

Larry Davis: It’s the one drop rule, exactly right, so that’s how it sort of worked. Now whether people like that, you know reality is another thing, but that’s sort of how it has worked….and I wrote an article that showed up in the Chicago Tribune in 1997, and I talk about that; the new ingredient in bi-racial identity, and the new ingredient really is the identity of the white parent; that basically there is nothing new. You have a white couple, we can talk about Obama even this way….you have a white couple who have a black child and they sort of say, “Ah ha, we have an interracial child.” What you have is an African American child. African Americans are [emolturacial] people; 77% of African Americans are thought to have white lineage, some even have Chinese heritage. So I mean, that’s who they are, it would be like going to Puerto Rico and sort of pull out the Hispanics and the Africans out of that group, and in some respects that’s true for black America. Who is Lena Horne, is she biracial? You know, I tell people, that America may have biracial children but it only has black adults, there are no biracial adults in America. These movie stars have kids and they are beautiful biracial kids, when they are kids, but when they show up on every-day magazines 20 years later, she’s the most beautiful black woman in America, they don’t say she’s the most beautiful biracial woman, it doesn’t wash in America.

Jonathan Singer: And why doesn’t it wash? Why can’t you have a biracial adult?

Larry Davis: Because that’s who we are, the term biracial fits the entire group, that’s the problem, that people who sort of undo this say, “I have a biracial child.” All they are measuring when they do that, is invariably they are measuring recency. Conceivably you could have a white partner and an African partner, right as we do in one of our presidential candidates.

Jonathan Singer: That’s right Barak Obama.

Larry Davis: Okay, you could have two quote, “black parents” in America both of whom have white lineage in the past, somebody was white somewhere……

Jonathan Singer: They could have been biracial as children.

Larry Davis: They would have been classified as biracial as children. So they have a child, so that child may in fact be whiter than is the child by the biracial couple by the white and African couple. See it doesn’t make sense, see people want to make this issue about biracial children but basically America doesn’t respond to the notion. Policeman doesn’t stop Obama and sort of say, “Hey, what is your lineage”, its, “Get out of the car you so and so, let’s get out.” People don’t do that to you, and the same thing these children, when people, I advise couples to do this, they often don’t like it, particularly the white partner because the white partner is thinking that I want to give my kid, not to be identified with this group, and give my kid sort of a leg up. But what you are really doing is contributing to some sort of biological, in social sense, to what’s been going on in the country a long time, and the new ingredient is that the white partner, the white parent, you are willing to stand up and say, “Yes this is my child”, as in the past many white women who had such children put them up for adoption, many white guys who had such children historically, basically just walked off from the situation, or in worse cases in slavery sold them. Or in the best cases began colleges for them, and that’s by and large for many, the historically black colleges began. For that’s why they started, because they were started for these children of slave, of slave masters. That’s why this color connection in America. People wonder, well what’s the deal with the color? Why is it fair skin blacks seem to be doing better than dark skin blacks? Because it was always a connection between color and privilege, because those were often originally many the children of these unions, this is nothing new. Frederick Douglas was actually very dark and had a white father, so is Frederick Douglas biracial? I guess he is, but if he walked down the street would anyone identify him as biracial? No, so doesn’t really make any biological or social sense, and when people try and do that I think they are doing the child a disservice and the person a disservice. I think Obama has done the right thing with it; he identifies himself as a black American, he doesn’t run around and say I’m some biracial man which people wouldn’t respond to. For example, even if you consider Obama biracial he married a quote, “black woman”, now they have a kid, is the kid biracial now? Or is the kid African American? You see what I mean? All these disputes, all these little arguments people have, at best they are measuring recency and the identity of the parents. Basically miscegenation took place more recently than someone else’s took place. But conceivably more recent combination of blacks and whites may not be as thorough as the past ones. So are these kids more interracial than Lena Horne? I doubt it.

Jonathan Singer: So I can see why you said that the definition of race is a little bit more complicated than how you would define a social problem……..

Larry Davis: Oh yeah I didn’t say much about social problem at all……..

Jonathan Singer: That’s right, so what is a social problem? What makes a problem social?

Larry Davis: Well it’s a problem that we all sort of recognize as being. It’s not unlike a medical problem, it has some social basis in terms of educational issues, human relations issues, they have a quote, “social component” to them. At the same time, even what we think of as biological health problems have strong racial components to them because they influence where people live, what kind of jobs they have, what kind of schools they go to, what sort of hazards are parked next to their neighborhoods, so even what we may think of as biological issues often result in having racial components which result in other social problems for us. So the Center, I guess that’s why you sort of asked me about this a little bit, we do have a Center called the Center for Racial and Social Problems. We named it the Center for Racial and Social Problems because often people don’t want to talk about race, they’ll talk about diversity, they’ll talk about inner city, they’ll talk about culturally deprived, I mean any term will do rather than talking about race, and we want… even researchers, I’ve met researchers all my life who will do elaborate surveys and enter race into the equation last, it’s just not want they want to address its kind of the hot button. But race, in fairness to it, its America’s defining social problem. There’s no topic in America which raises emotions more so than does the topic of race.

Jonathan Singer: I’m really interested to hear what you have to think about this idea, of how these issues of race, and the questions of race, and the way that race is constructed and viewed in terms of social problems and issues, and how that might change now that Hispanics are the majority minority group in the United States.

Larry Davis: Well I don’t think it’s going to work quite as people think it might. In 1980, 20% of the population was non-white, now some 20 years later, about 30% of the population is non-white. Frequently you hear the discussion that by the year 2050, that 50 % of the population will be non-white. The figures are about 12% African Americans, 12 point something for Hispanics…some point percentage difference between the two. The reason it won’t be so simple in terms of just the number is because America more so than anything else follows the color line, and that even though 13% or 12 some point percent for Hispanics being the largest minority group, they will sort of respond like a minority group but they won’t in some respects. Some Hispanics are classified as being white, and are considered as being white and responded to as being white and for all purposes are white people who speak Spanish. So you get for example Cubans, Cubans here are by and large a white population, the same is not true for Puerto Ricans many of whom are whom African Americans, in fact the data on Puerto Ricans looks like black data of regards to social parallels; unemployment, poverty rates, out of wedlock births, crime, that kinds of thing. The data for Cubans looks like white data, so in that sense, both of them are classified as Hispanic groups which is why it is always difficult when we talk about Hispanics, we need to know who we are talking about because what we do is we put together Puerto Rican group, Cuban group and the largest group, Mexican Americans which is some 60%. So you put those together and you come up with a mean but you don’t know exactly who you are talking about. The groups such as Cubans, Argentineans and Spaniards, who are here, lift up the mean for Hispanics on some given phenomenon but the larger group is probably a truer measure of Hispanics, is probably the Mexican Americans who fall in the middle between, they also happen to fall in the middle between color. That in the absence of anything else I would tell someone to really look, to tell me the color of the Hispanic group and I would have a better chance of telling you how that Hispanic group is fairing in America. So how they are faring at some point will have to do with how they are going to vote. So the 12% of the population, or 13% of the population, they may not all vote like we think about Hispanics that say some 5% may vote as whites, and the other 8% may vote as people of color. So it’s not going to be as simple as people think. So that would be the main thing I would say of how it’s going to work, and there’s also difference too; the Hispanic population is younger, and we also have to think about how well they are doing, the world isn’t all about race and color. It’s funny, there’s a quote by Ralph Ellison that says, “We should attempt to stare down the deadly and hypnotic temptation to see the world in all its vices in terms of race”. Everything doesn’t have to do with race, it’s a powerful predictor but it doesn’t explain all the variants that go on in our lives.

Jonathan Singer: So clearly race is an important issue for you, as it is for the United States. But I’m wondering what you think is the importance of race for social workers? Why should social workers be concerned about race?

Larry Davis: As we mentioned a little earlier, racism is America’s defining social problem. I mean it has a legacy in this country, it’s been important to the making of the country, I can’t think of any problem that doesn’t have some racial component. When we look at the social ills of our society whether that be crime, poor education, health care, poor quality of communities, we can look at them by race in some way and that race often determines who is doing better than someone else, and by not acknowledging it, social workers really are not addressing the elephant in the room, that social workers in particular are committed more so than any other profession to work with low-income individuals, and to fight for social justice. So for us not to acknowledge the importance of race is really not to address a major component of what’s causing social injustice and societal inequities, so we have to know something about this. Even if demographics were not changing, but the fact that demographics are changing, that you are having a higher percentage of non-whites in the country means that you will have a higher percent of cross-racial interactions, that whites who want to interact to be relevant today, you might have been able to go to some back woods place and hide from race in some other period of time. But I always tell people today that the character for crisis and opportunity are the same [Jonathan’s note: in Mandarin Chinese the character for “crisis” is a combination of “danger” and “opportunity/turning point”], and for those people who really want to be often at the heart of where things are going on in the country, the major crisis will really have to come in contact with these demographic changes that are occurring. So our social work students and our social work professionals need to be aware of the issues, and need to be aware of the strengths and the liabilities in cross-racial interactions, they need to know the realities that their clients face. I mean at one time I think social work focused more on internal functioning, mainly because of the psychoanalytic bent – that basically the problems resided within the individual. But that very thing is what has always made social work different from psychology. Psychology basically views the problem residing within the individual’s head – that somehow it is an intrapersonal problem, but social workers have always recognized human behavior in the social environment. The social environment is a major component that where people live, that where people went to school, what was going on inside their communities influenced greatly how they themselves become. And some people may say, “Oh those things aren’t important, if they want to do well they can do well”, and the same people are the ones who make sure that their kids are in private school paying $18,000 a year, and I always want to say to them, you know, if the environment doesn’t matter, if friends don’t matter, if context doesn’t matter, then why are you willing to pay so much money to be sure that your kid is in this pristine environment, because you do recognize that it matters on some level.

Jonathan Singer: So one of the things you mentioned earlier was that race is the defining issue. If I was talking to Gloria Steinem she might say that gender is the defining issue. How could you say that they are different?

Larry Davis: You know this is interesting because this Sunday’s New York Times had an article on this very topic. I don’t know if you saw it or not, but I’ve forgotten what the woman’s name was I think it was Harlan [Jonathan’s Note: Elizabeth Cady Stanton], but the black person’s name was Frederick Douglas. Well as it turns out they had been sort of allies in both trying to get the right to vote and it sort of came down to who would get the right to vote first, would it be men, in this case would it be blacks right to vote as men, or would it be women, and they argued about that and one of the comments that is interesting is the woman made, why should women be denied to vote and let someone who is less lettered, unlettered, a farmer, clearly not a socially sophisticated person to vote when the women couldn’t vote. And Frederick Douglas’ response was, well we’ll support that when you are hunted down, when there is genocide carried out against your group, when your brain is smashed against the cement on the sidewalks, when you are being lynched by the thousands in the country, then we will support such a view. But this is a fairly debate, it doesn’t really go very far in terms that some would say it is a gender issue and some would say it’s a racial issue, but if you look at some demographics in terms of who is in prison, who has a longer or shorter life expectancy, who is better educated, who is hungry, who’s kids do well, I mean you see this really racial sort of thing coming up. Not that you don’t want to say that gender…I don’t really like getting into it because I don’t find it very productive. But you have to think in terms of the people who are likely to be killed this evening. If you were to send a male or female, a black and white into society, that you would get, the white female would be less likely to be harmed even by legitimate agents of our society than would be the black person. What has happened with black women during the movement is that largely, what people argue is that the women’s movement, that many black women aren’t in it because race does trump gender for them, that even the white women don’t treat them so well, so they are double whammied, that black women are perceived as being less feminine than white women. So even as women they are discriminated against, even by the women who are their allies. So of course occasionally, some black women some arguments some are saying well your mother or my mother, I mean if we get really carried away and go back to the whole thing, but black women have real issues about the gender issue as well. So you know, I don’t think it’s a particularly productive argument but I do think that you are seeing some things take place with the Presidential Election where we do see a black man running and a white female running, and we’ll see how people vote, if people vote with their identities or if they vote with what they think would be the best candidate.

Jonathan Singer: So when you say if they vote with their identities you are saying that women would vote for a woman and African Americans would vote for an African American.

Larry Davis: Right, and what I thought made this race so noble up until this point, is that black Americans did not immediately flock to Obama. That they sort of held their ground, his numbers were less than Hillary’s, and they were loyal to the Clintons and I think that it helped Obama sort of indirectly because it said to whites that these people are really trying to rise above this, they are trying to be noble in this struggle, that this is their candidate and they are not just all carte blanche going to the black candidate, and I think that now the introduction of race and gender into the Presidential debates, really sort of hurts the whole discussion, you know I think the country was trying to rise above it but I don’t think that it will.

Jonathan Singer: And by the introduction of race you are talking about the comment that Hillary Clinton made about Johnson and Martin Luther King, and how King couldn’t have done what he had done without Johnson, of course a white president, and that has brought race back into the issue of the race.

Larry Davis: It was unfortunate; because I agree with Obama who said that he didn’t agree that was her intent either. I’m sure it wasn’t her intent to do that, to make that comment and to be perceived negatively by African Americans, but it did heighten significance of race to the discussion, but there is something to be said about Hillary’s point, it’s sort of the discussion of; do times make the man or does the man make the times? I think if King had come along during Bush’s time, I’m not so sure he would have been successful, he might have been but it certainly didn’t hurt to have Johnson in the White House, a southerner who had some sense of legacy, some sense of wanting some change. But I don’t think she meant that, but I think the whole introduction of race and gender into the discussion again is detrimental to the sort of America’s rising above it.

Jonathan Singer: We have a woman candidate and an African American candidate, do think there is some way that is a set up for the democrats, in the sense that we have two groups that have traditionally been considered oppressed running against each other?

Larry Davis: No I think it’s a sign of the times, I think it’s a great thing that, I think Americans recognize that it spoke well for them. I think it’s what’s generated attention for the democratic race, people are excited for the democratic race, in part because you have these two historically unelectable people who are running, and it says that we have risen above some of the old racial or gender stereotypes and we are trying to be bigger than, bigger and better than we have been in the past. No I don’t think it was a set up, I don’t think anyone….I think Hillary generally wants to be President, I think it just worked out that her husband was President and now she has a chance to do it, she’s smart she’s capable. One thing I do feel good about, about the candidates is that I actually like all three democratic candidates. Edwards, I could live with Edwards no problem, Hillary, I think Hillary’s smart enough and she’s done stuff, she knows things, she would be a perfect President, and I think Obama would be fine as President, he does bring something she doesn’t she does bring the experience, Washington savvy in that sense even moral savvy. But he does bring hope, that we’ll do something different, we are tired of what we’ve done, so both point are valid points, either way, it may boil down to a way that people didn’t think it should happen, but I think ultimately we’ll wind up with a good President.

Jonathan Singer: So I want to ask you a question that takes us off of the issue of politics and back on to this issue of social workers. Do you think that there is, well let me back up, you came up with this idea of psychological majority, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that means, and I was wondering if you thought that this issue of the percentage of whites in this country decreasing as compared to the percentage of non-whites in this country will have a positive effect on race relations or a detrimental effect on race relations.

Larry Davis: Well it’s funny that you should come back to that, as I said to you during the break that I really have had the one original idea in my life and it is something called the psychological majority and essentially what it says is, is that because blacks are so often in the minority that whites are accustomed to being overwhelmingly the majority, in that numbers of blacks which exceed the traditional numbers of African Americans in some setting can cause whites to feel even though still in the numerical majority, to feel themselves outnumbered and that’s why I call it the psychological majority that some racial around 30% percent we sort of know that we could pick up tipping points but the argument I make in one paper I wrote is that a group which has equal numbers of blacks and whites say 50/50, that whites are psychologically outnumbered in that group because they are accustomed to being the numerical majority and now the numbers aren’t to their favor so they do feel themselves to be some sort…for example we see this thing happen in a lot of places, bars, schools, but we do from the literature and work in this area that the 50/50 ratio of blacks to whites in particular, and what’s interesting about this discussion is that what do the other groups contribute, Hispanics and Asians, you know as we sort of said it’s figured that around 2050 what will that look like when we have 50/50%, so theoretically you are right, as the numbers of non-whites increase relative to the number of whites we might expect more friction because what happens, this is my own research, when there was a clear majority, when whites were either 25% or blacks were 25% both groups seemed to understand whose group it was, whose school it is, whose bar it is, whose neighborhood it is, but when it got to 50/50 then there was fight for dominance, now this really was true for men more so than for women. In fact much of what we know about race relations or racial problems really have to do with male behavior, it’s us guys, because we strike these hierarchies we want things hierarchal, whose the boss, whose the chief…there’s an interesting comment made about women’s groups it sort of says that the problem with men’s groups is everyone wants to lead and the problem with women’s groups is no one wants to lead, so women are comfortable sort of, without having sort of a strong hierarchal structure but guys would establish one, so when you have this 50/50 ratio it’s the worst case scenario for conflict between groups. Now again, you introduce some of these minority groups and who knows how it is exactly going to work but from what we know, we would expect that conflict in the country as for example you have cities, I’m from, I came here from St. Louis which is 52% black and Pittsburg now which is 27% black, I honestly think that there is more racial tension in St. Louis because there’s really a competition for leadership; whose city is it? Is St. Louis a black city? We have a new numerical majority when Pittsburg is like, well we can’t be a black city, blacks get a fair share of it but they’re not going to run the town but in St. Louis they could conceivably quote “run the town” in the sense that they have the political numbers to sort of do that and I think it causes…and once that number gets close like that you also get a big white exodus which has happened in St. Louis, where you have a lot of white flight from the city which of course only makes the city blacker so eventually even so blacks in fact finally do wind up inheriting the city, but it causes all sorts of problems with whites, the tax base and the educational level may drop because of people in schools and whatever, it’s similar to what happens with actually some of the African countries that as when whites left the country then, you are left with an uneducated group of people who are sort of trying to sort of run it, and in some sense some of the cities, some of the black cities now because of white exodus of course they are short of tax base but they are also struggling in other areas too.

Jonathan Singer: So what can social workers do to fight racism?

Larry Davis: Social work can sort of do a better job of addressing racism as a social problem, as more of a macro problem. We sort of take it piece meal, we sort of look at race and mental health, and race and criminal justice, and race a child welfare, which is a good thing, we do better than any other profession, all this diversity stuff, we were talking about this back in the 60’s in America, the business schools, the medical professions, they just started talking about it now, all the human behavior stuff, the environment stuff is important. Psychology just now started talking about the environment, they just discovered the environment in the last 10 years even now the stuff they are talking about doing. Public health the same thing, they are talking about going into the community, we have always done that in social work, and social work stuff, service learning is what social workers, we’ve always done that stuff, and now other groups are saying, yeah we should have our students out there doing things, but it’s what’s contributed to social work in both ways it’s also what’s given us a bad name in some respects because we engaged in what was correctly system blame, that we are sort of saying, yes people do have problems but not millions and millions of people who live in the same neighborhood, what happened they all drank the same water, this whole block went paranoid? No, something must really be going on here, of course now you’re blaming the system so you alienate people; politicians and the like. I was a Vista volunteer in New York City for three years, and they essentially got rid of us though, and the reason that they did is because we were like some 5% of the OEO (Office of Economic Opportunity) budget, we were like 70% of the OEO problems, because we came, we were naïve students believing that in fact the populations we were going to work with were somehow deficient. We got there and found out that they were actually pretty smart, but the school systems were lousy, the apartment buildings were uncared for, the food and the neighborhood was no good, the garbage wasn’t picked up, there were drug sellers police allowed, you know there were a lot of corruption, there were a lot of things going on with the system, sure enough some of the people weren’t so great, some of them didn’t have the best of behavior, but in many respects much of what was going on was caused by systems blame. The system wasn’t functioning well which is why in social work we sort of divide up in these two camps, we sort of have macro and micro, that the macro people sort of look at communities, large sort of social systems, and the micro people look at sort of individuals behavior. We are still more focused on individual behavior, something like 87% of our students are micro people and some only 13% really only look at larger communities, systemic issues.
If you go online and punch up race relations, you’ll be lucky if you get any social work. Kind of interesting right? One time I was doing that, I wanted to go online, pick up racial issues in America, and you’ll get up scholarships, you’ll see books, but not by social workers, which is really kind of interesting that somehow, I mean when Clinton put together this committee on race in America, not a social worker was there, Franklin was there, sociologists and some other people were there, but no social workers involved and there’s no group that is closer to the ground than us with regards to dealing with groups. I mean we are in the face of groups and communities so we never looked at race as a phenomenon, as a real entity that we need to address on a more systemic level, we sort of addressed it on as an influence on social problems. But I was struck by, and I challenge people to do that, go online, punch up race relations and see how many social work scholars you’ll get, that’s not how our work is done, we’ve been attached to some particular problem. So I would like for social work to sort of recognize it is more systemic, it is more of an issue than it is, we address it we do better than any other profession I think in doing it, like that’s why I think it’s important we have the Center we have, Center for Race and Social Problems, and to my knowledge no other school of social work has one, a center of race and social problems. They have problems that address race or do some diversity issues, but see, diversity can be anything you know, but when you start talking about race, which is why we name it that way, I wanted it to be race because ultimately I will cease to be, and someone will run the Center, but they will be faced with the decision they’ll have to either change the name or they’ll have to continue talking about race. So there are things social workers can do and I think that mainly to be willing to acknowledge race, get involved in racial struggles, and not be afraid to sort of to say in fact that what they are dealing with are racial problems.

Jonathan Singer: And so the Center for Race and Social Problems, this is your Center, not just your Center, but the Center that you started, and the purpose is to engage in scholarship around race and social problems. You didn’t say this, but I’m wondering, are you saying that it would be good for schools of social work to follow your lead and to actually establish centers on race and social problems?

Larry Davis: Right, right, that’s exactly right, and that was the purpose of this. All my life, and sometimes I even think about when I see mental health, you know, we had to make the person mentally ill to address race, you couldn’t sort of say, this person is basically experiencing a racial problem, you had to connect it somehow to the mental health issue, to address it if you are in mental health. True enough some people do have mental difficulties, but many of them are saying nothing is wrong with him except they’re having racial problems, and we should be able to say that yeah, the problem with this community is not that the whole block has a character disorder but the whole block is not treated well by the police department, or the whole block is being discriminated by the city, that there are major racial issues on the school boards, I mean we look at school boards in the city, major racial problems, there it’s a racial problem, it’s basically a majority black population of children being governed by a majority white population of administrators, and that’s what the struggle is often about, that whites either don’t want to pay taxes on schools in which their kids are no longer in, and whites want to retain control of the school system because kids are in it, which I understand that, blacks want more say about the school system because it makes sense to them because the majority of their kids are in there and they are the majority group in the public school system. So that’s what we are sort of fighting about, but underneath this educational discussion, this is a discussion of race, and I’m saying we need to be more up front about what we are talking about.

Jonathan Singer: One of the pieces of the Center for Race and Social Problems, one of the services that the Center has provided that I most enjoyed and most benefitted from, as well have hundreds of others that I have seen, is this lecture series, and some of the issues we have talked about today have been touched on by folks that you have brought in to speak. Having this entrée to ideas and of course contacts for those of us who are interested in pursuing the research and the scholarship on this is just fabulous, but I would think that even if a school didn’t have the resources or the support perhaps from the University or the community to have an entire center on race and social problems, that having speakers focus on these issues in a forum like you provide brings these issues to the fore in a way that can only be beneficial for social work.

Larry Davis: For that I really want to thank the provost of the University of Pittsburg in private and public, because it didn’t have to go this way. The problems are real, they’re there, the need for it is real they’re there, the Center is now 5 years old, but I’ve had this idea for the Center many more years than that, but it was at Pittsburg that people said, okay we’ll do it, you know, and I think it has worked, I think in other places now recognize that, hey we should do it, we should have done it, and we are seeing a lot of people who are copying us even within the University now, other departments or other schools, other little schools around our University who are having some series because they recognize how popular they have been, the speakers have been tremendously successful, that it is on any given lecture a multi-racial group of men and women, who are multi-disciplinary, town and gown, that is people from the University and people from the city, in a room, talking about America’s most affectively charged topic in a civil way. It is short of a miracle…

Jonathan Singer: …It’s fabulous…

Larry Davis: …You know, that we did exactly what we set out to do, in fact we did more than what we set out to do, we are surprised that the Center has really done so well. I mean we have eight speakers a year, four each semester, and they come from everywhere; Princeton, Harvard, Michigan, here [Pittsburgh], I mean we have a balance of sort of, we’ve done some things that are unique with it, we’ve had a balance of sort of national and local people. We sort of have the local people so it doesn’t become too ethereal, so that, for example we had the head of the Urban League to speak, we had a person who has been, in the case of Sala Udin whose been the old guard here for black leadership in the city, who struggled with the city for a long time and knows sort of what’s been going on, we have people like Orlando Patterson whose come in, or Elijah Anderson whose come in, or Julian Bond whose come in, or some other scholars who have come, so we have a mixture of people, and we have a mixture of also black and white speakers which has really been helpful to us, and I was mentioning this to someone yesterday after the talk is the thing that I am so very proud of that we managed to do is that we have, as I said earlier, it really is a multi-racial group of people attending these things, I don’t know if there is ever, there is never a complete dominance by one group, I don’t know if blacks are ever the majority or if whites are always the majority, I don’t know exactly how it goes, but because we address it, it’s not an African American center, I tell people this in public, I tell people this in private, that it’s not a black center it’s not a white center, racism is America’s problem, so let’s not put it on any particular group to resolve it, to solve this problem, so I think that’s represented-reflected in the leadership of the Center, there’s Ralph Bangs whose white, there’s Hide Yamatani whose Japanese, there are other people, so it really has a multi-racial balance and feel. The speakers are balanced by gender, so we go to great length though to sustain really racial and gender balance in the Center. First and foremost the Center is a research outfit, that our job is to produce high quality research, racial related research, the second is to mentor scholars such as yourself who come through, want to know things, can be involved with us, work on projects, post docs, those types of things, the third area is what you are referring to already, and that is about the speaker series, the dissemination of information that people have, it provides, the Center provides a forum, and to my knowledge there was no place at the University of Pittsburg where people could come, gather like we can and talk about. I remember one lecture in particular very early in the Center’s history, there was a woman here by the name of Kathleen Blee. Kathleen Blee is in sociology. She studied some lynching and here we were in this room talking about what is clearly a highly affective charged topic, lynching, in a context that could never have been done otherwise. Where would you find a group of people that could sit down, a multi-racial group to sit down and talk about this topic without feeling too guilty or feeling too angry or something that would prohibit the conversation from being productive? Well it happens in our school every month. Someone comes in, and Jonathan you are always there, I look for you in the crowd, `cause I know when you’re there I can start, you typically ask questions. But they really have grown, we did them thinking, this part this little lecture series, we thought we’d have 30 to 40 people, and now we have, always we have one hundred, sometimes we have 140 people who come, so you know it’s really taken off and it’s really been one of the highlights of the Center’s development.

Jonathan Singer: That’s great. Well Dean Davis thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be here and talk with us about issues of race and social problems.

Larry Davis: Thanks Jonathan it was great to be with you.

-- End --

Because Dr. Davis covers many important topics, I have included 17 topics and their time points in the podcast. I have also included links to terms or references that can be found on the web (mostly through Wikipedia).

  1. Beginning of the interview and definition of Race and Social Problems: [01:58]
  2. "The major definition of race has been color" [02:31]
  3. Mulattos and Octaroons [3:30]
  4. The New Ingredient in the Identity of Black Biracial Children [4:49]
  5. "African Americans are a multi-racial people." [5:13]
  6. "America may have biracial children, but there are no biracial adults." [5:37]
  7. What makes race a social problem? [9:36]
  8. How will issues of race change now that Hispanics are the majority minority group? [11:06]
  9. There is less than a percentage point difference between the number of African American and Hispanics in the United States according to the 2000 Census [11:59]
    1. Note: In the 2000 US Census, 75.1% of Americans identified as White. 12.5% identified as Hispanic or Latino. 12.3% identified as Black or African American.
  10. Why should social workers be concerned about race? [15:00]
  11. How can race be a more defining issue for America than gender? [18:19]
  12. Will people vote with their racial or gender identities in the presidential election? [21:47]
  13. Is it detrimental to the Democrats to have two traditionally oppressed groups represented in the front-runners? [24:10]
  14. Dean Davis defines and discusses his concept "Psychological Majority" [26:43]
  15. What can social workers do to fight racism? [31:25]
  16. Should other schools of social work have a center on race and social problems? [36:29]
  17. Center on Race and Social Problems lecture series [38:26]
Definitions of terms used in the podcast:

Mulatto: Mulatto (Spanish mulato, small mule, person of mixed race, mulatto, from mulo, mule, from Old Spanish, from Latin mulus.) is a person of mixed black and white ancestry or the offspring of one white parent and one black parent or someone 50% black and 50% white. Notable Mulattos: Fredrick Douglas, Alicia Keys, Bob Marley, Halley Berry, Barak Obama.

Octoroon: a person of fourth-generation black ancestry. An octoroon has one parent who is a quadroon and one white parent. In other words, the person has one black great-grandparent and seven white great-grandparents.

Miscegenation: (Latin miscere "to mix" + genus "kind") is the "mixing" of different "races."
References and resources
Center on Race and Social Problems:

Grieco, E. M., & Cassidy, R. C. (2000, March). Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved online

Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 18, 2008.
Text / Interactive video and transcript

Black and Single: Meeting and Choosing a Partner Who's Right for You

The New Ingredient in the Identity of Black Biracial Children
by Larry E. Davis (Op. Ed., 1996)
Some parents of black biracial children are being unrealistic. It is a mistake to promote a biracial identity for children born to black and non-black parents. African Americans are a multiracial people. It is estimated that well over 70 percent of African Americans have white ancestry, while others have ancestors who are Native American, Hispanic and Asian. Virtually all African Americans can identify some relative who is "mixed with something."

So what is new in the identity of today's children born to black and non-black parents? Only the identities of non-black parents. For the first time in this country, large numbers of non-black parents wish to be identified as the parents of a child by a black person. Historically, the parents of children born to black and non-black unions have been severely castigated, which largely explains their traditional invisibility. It is understandable that parents want to share in their children's racial identities.

Still some parents hope foremost to distance their children from black America and the problems associated with it. The tacit goal is to establish a more positive, that is "less black" racial-group identity for their children. This effort will only confuse and serve to encourage these children to be all they can never be -- non-black. Parents of black biracial children who possess the need to foster on their children a non-black identity will ultimately serve only their own interests. The needs of the parents will be satisfied at the cost of the future life experiences of the child. Being black in America if difficult enough, but a lifetime spent denying or qualifying it will be even more so. To deny being black when everyone else who looks like them is considered black will cause the children to lose out on what is a rich heritage and a positive sense of who they are.

Whether the parents like it or not, the bulk of America will not ask the recency of their children's miscegenation, nor the extent of it. By virtue of being indistinguishable from the larger group of African Americans, these new "black biracial" children will be subjected to all the liabilities of being black in America. Yet failing to acknowledge themselves as members will result in their denying themselves a wealth of benefits. What benefits? Ask Alice Walker, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Cornell West, Maya Angelou, Spike Lee, and Toni Morrison. Black biracial people, who have been taught to dis-identify with other African Americans, are apt to experience tension when among the very group who would most immediately and sincerely be their friends and supporters, wives and husbands.

At the same time, they will be given no commensurate outpouring of friendship and support from non-black society. Parents of biracial children should work to improve life opportunities of all children, and especially for those with whom their children will be forever linked -- African American children. For ultimately only a few non-black people will respond to these new "black biracial" children any differently than they would any other black child. The non-black parents of black children must come to grips with the socio-political history of black and non-black miscegenation in America.

They must recognize that children in America who have any recognizable African ancestry are by definition African American. They would do well to encourage their children to follow the example of innumerable role models who may physically look like them: Colin Powell, Halle Berry, Sonja Sonchez, Mario Van Peebles, and Tiger Woods. Their children should be taught that the group to which they belong, is in fact a group to be proud of, and one which has always been multiracial.

Few groups anywhere in the world are more multiracial than African Americans. I have little doubt that the greatest source of support and encouragement for black biracial children will come from the larger African American community. Unfortunately, this is the very group which some would have them deny. Children born of black and non-black parents must be told that they are not the first to have white, Asian and Hispanic parents, but are among literally millions that have come before them. What may make them different is not the color of their parents, but that their non-black parents are proud to be identified as their parents.

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Host). (2008, March 24). Race and social problems: Interview with Dean Larry E. Davis [Episode 36]. Social Work Podcast. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from

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