DIVERSITY: ‘Unprecedented’ moment ‘150 years too late,’ Angela Davis says


Activist and social justice educator Angela Davis, who grew up in segregated Birmingham, Ala., “vividly” remembers the lynching of Emmett Till and racial terrorism from the Ku Klux Klan.

Seeing her peers and adults in her community fighting back against injustice inspired her to take action.

“I think that I realized that it was simply not possible to survive with dignity under those conditions without standing up and fighting back,” Davis said on July 28 during one of the first events for Pitt’s Diversity Forum 2020, hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Provost Ann Cudd and Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement Kathy Humphrey hosted “A Conversation with Angela Davis,” a virtual discussion on activism, politics, systemic racism and more.

Over the decades, Davis’ activism spread to other countries and other social justice issues in France, Germany, Brazil, Colombia and more.

Cudd asked Davis what she believes are the reasons racism has remained prevalent in the United States.

Davis attributed the continued systemic injustices of racism to the country’s inability to fully address the influence slavery has had on its many institutions. 

But the recent wave of social justice protests spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has increased awareness of systemic injustices in health care, education and the economy. 

When chattel slavery ended, the U.S. began a reconstruction process to examine institutions that historically ignored Black people. However, that work was stalled by pervasive racism throughout the country, especially in states that implemented Jim Crow laws to politically disenfranchise free Black people. 

The political climate in the country has forced more white people to acknowledge the continued existence of systemic racism in what Davis described as an “extraordinary” and “unprecedented” moment in the country’s history.

However, this is a process that should have happened a long time ago, she said.

“We’re like 150 years too late,” Davis said. “But of course, as they say, it’s better late than never.” 

With this new awareness, she added, U.S. society will have to re-examine its vocabulary to better address the realities of systemic racism.

“Even the idea of ‘race relations’ incorporates the notion that it’s about ‘relations’ between white individuals and Black or LatinX or indigenous individuals, not about the forms of racism that remained embedded in all of the institutions of the society which have an impact not only on people of color but have a negative impact on white people as well,” Davis said.

Black people’s fight to improve their living conditions has even helped white people who have been economically exploited, Davis added.

Humphrey later asked Davis about the difference between a person referring to themselves as “not racist” and an “anti-racist” and how institutions like higher education should begin addressing social justice issues.

Davis said that it’s important that people realize that “simply changing minds will not eradicate structural racism.”

“A chorus of people saying, ‘I am not racist,’ accomplishes nothing,” Davis said. “I think that’s probably the simplest way of understanding the difference between the individual who claims an identity of a non-racist and the actual work that will move our societies in the direction of equality and justice.”

Further, institutions like higher education need to examine their own roles in perpetuating racism and inequity in a process of “collective self-reflection,” Davis added.

Colleges and universities have historically been tied to systems perpetuating racism, Davis said and will need to engage in radical transformation.

One step these institutions can take, she said, is to create prison education programs. Eventually, Davis said she thinks free education also could help address systemic racism.

“We want everyone to have access to these institutions of higher learning,” Davis said. “Money and capacity to pay should not act as an impediment for someone who really wants to study and learn.”

To watch the full conversation and the other conversations from the Diversity Forum, visit the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s YouTube page.

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


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