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Skin color shouldn’t matter. Not when it comes to a person’s income level, quality of healthcare, choice of neighborhood, or anything else. But it does matter, even today, which is why the University has created a new center to identify and eliminate racial inequalities.


Written by Cindy Gill

A string of train cars rests for a moment at the station, the last stop before the Kentucky border and the depots of small Southern towns. Late-summer heat cloaks the train. The heavy air feels like spun cotton on the skin, in the throat. Some passengers depart. Some board. Some wait for the train to move on.

In one of the rear passenger cars, a child sits with his mother and two older siblings, anticipating that first grind and lurch of forward motion. He’s excited to be traveling for a visit with his grandmother near Montgomery, Ala. He wants to get there and taste her home cooking again. Montgomery is a long way from the family’s house in Saginaw, Mich.

As the train sits at the station, a conductor moves along the center aisle. His eyes survey each row of seats. His head moves left, then right. Slowly, he moves through the car, as if silently counting. He approaches the boy’s mother. The two exchange words. There’s a problem. She’s White. The children are “Colored.” The conductor says she’ll have to move to another car, leaving the children behind. Naturally, she refuses. Despite her light-colored skin, she explains to the man in uniform, she is a Negro, too. The conductor takes a moment to consider what he has heard. To him, he sees a White-looking woman sitting with Black children. Bewildered but busy, he decides not to insist that she move to a “Whites Only” car. He punches the family’s tickets and lets them remain together in the car reserved for “Coloreds.”

This happened south of Cincinnati on an August afternoon in the late 1950’s. Segregation was still routinely practiced then, especially in Southern states. It made a lasting impression on the child. He thought about race a lot growing up, asking himself as early as 7 years old, “If we were the slaves, why are they so angry with us?”

Nearly five decades later, Larry E. Davis still asks himself the same question, prompting, in part, the creation of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, which he directs.

Many would say progress has been made against racism in our society. Some might even suggest that today racism in America has been overcome, and there is no need for such a center.

Certainly, things have changed. The practice of segregation began to unravel in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education. This landmark Supreme Court decision unanimously affirmed that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, and the modern Civil Rights movement was born. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public facilities, made job discrimination illegal, and addressed voting rights nationwide. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed specific legal barriers to equality in voting. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination in housing. The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 required institutions receiving federal funds to abide by federal nondiscrimination policies. And the Civil Rights Act of 1991 added protections against workplace discrimination.

But statistics show an ongoing racial divide. A study by the National Science Foundation found a five-year decline, between 1994 and 1999, in African Americans’ net worth despite an economic boom during that time. The average White household in 2002 had a net worth of $84,000, compared to a net worth of $7,500 for the average Black household, according to Franklin Raines, CEO of Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association) and former director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. In spring 2002, as reported by CNN, the Institute of Medicine found that Whites receive better and more aggressive healthcare than others. Based on a study by Human Rights Watch, The New York Times noted in June 2000 that nearly twice as many Blacks are imprisoned for drug offenses as Whites, even though there are five times more White drug users than Blacks. A 2002 report by Human Rights Watch found that Blacks and Hispanics make up 63 percent of the adult prison population in the United States, but only 25 percent of the national population. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2001 that Pennsylvania incarcerates Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians at 11 times the rate of Whites.

The center will explore these kinds of race-related social problems. “The opening of this center is part of a larger mission—that of making ours a better and more just society,” says Davis, who is dean of Pitt’s School of Social Work. “When we look at the enormity of racial, ethnic, and religious perils facing our world, I can think of no more noble or worthwhile effort than that of engaging in the struggle to foster greater racial insight, harmony, and justice.”

Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems brings together faculty researchers and scholars interested in racial aspects of social inequities. For instance, Stephen B. Thomas, a member of the center’s academic advisory committee, works to ensure that all Americans have equal rights when it comes to good health. Specifically, by 2010, he and his colleagues seek to eliminate health disparities based on race, as part of the national Healthy People initiative.

Health disparities clearly exist. The Agency for Health Care Research and Quality says that race and ethnicity influence a person’s chance of receiving certain medical procedures and treatments. In 2000, the agency found that the time period between an abnormal screening mammogram and a follow-up diagnostic test for breast cancer is twice as long for Asian American, Black, and Hispanic women than it is for White women. This past April, CBS News reported that even though White women get breast cancer at a higher rate, Black women are more likely to die of the disease. Likewise, Native Americans are nearly three times more likely to develop diabetes than Whites. Black men experience stroke at twice the rate of White men.

What accounts for these and other differences in health outcomes? Thomas—who directs Pitt’s Center for Minority Health in the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) and is the Philip Hallen Professor of Community Health and Social Justice at GSPH and the School of Social Work—looks for factors that contribute to these disparities. Research can help pinpoint what causes these differences, leading to solutions in which people, regardless of race, have equal access to quality healthcare.

Willa Doswell, another center affiliate and a Pitt nursing professor, conducts research on the effects of puberty in African American adolescents. She’s exploring, for example, factors that may account for the onset of early sexual behavior in youngsters, including the potential impact of family and peer pressure, early pubertal development, and media programming (such as music videos) that targets youngsters.

The Center on Race and Social Problems involves close to 50 affiliated faculty, like Doswell and Thomas, from Pitt and elsewhere nationwide. Through the center, these scholars examine traditional social problems involving economics, education, youth and families, the elderly, mental health, criminal justice, and intergroup relations, all from the perspective of racial differences and disparities. Davis, who is also Pitt’s Donald E. Henderson Professor, says, “Typically, social scientists look at social problems and then, as an afterthought, throw in racial variables to explain something. Our goal at the center is to look at the racial component first.”

The center fosters such research. For example, what role does race play in a family’s state of well-being? What effect, if any, does race have on educational, employment, health, legal, and other social outcomes? If differences exist, what are the reasons behind those differences? What happens when a Black father is sentenced to prison for a crime where he might have gone free had he been White? How does his incarceration affect his family’s income, his children’s performance in school and their vulnerability toward drug use and joining gangs? Why do Blacks, regardless of income level, remain largely segregated in separate neighborhoods from their White counterparts?

While Pittsburgh’s demographics are still examined primarily in Black and White terms, center faculty and their collaborators will conduct research dealing with all races throughout the nation. The center will look at what can be done to create equal status and opportunity for all. Other centers around the country also seek to improve racial understanding, but Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems is the only one of its kind within a school of social work. This means the center’s research findings are more likely to be applied in real-world community settings by professionals interested in practical solutions, and not relegated to the world of bookshelf theory. The research and writing of Pitt faculty on racial issues have been used to inform public policy decisions, legal opinions, health care debates, and more. As center faculty generate research results, their findings will be available to judges, lawyers, legislators, journalists, educators, health professionals, and others in positions to influence fair and equal treatment and shape public policy.

A psychologist, social worker, author, and eminent scholar, Davis has carried the dream of this center with him for many years. In 2001, he was recruited from Washington University in St. Louis, where he held an endowed professorship in racial and ethnic diversity. He was on the verge of creating his dream program in St. Louis when University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Provost James V. Maher convinced him to come to Pitt. Davis’ appointement made the center’s creation in Pittsburgh possible. Now, with a commitment of institutional support, Davis and colleagues have begun to establish new research programs, identify faculty partners, and seek grants and contracts to expand the center’s budget base.

Ralph Bangs, the center’s associate director, handles day-to-day operations and organizational functions. A research associate at Pitt, Bangs specializes in public policy research. During the past decade, he and his research team published a series of benchmark reports about Pittsburgh based on national census data. The reports, which are part of Bangs’ work at the University Center for Social and Urban Research, address economic, health, and social conditions for Blacks in Pittsburgh compared to other large, urban areas. “We would like to provide good policy information about what types of programs or policies or strategies work or don’t work,” he says. “That would be helpful to people who want to do more about these issues.”

In addition to conducting research and scholarship, the center will train and educate graduate students and emerging scholars. Leading experts in race relations will be invited to campus to discuss their views. (Julian Bond, a storied civil rights activist and chair of the NAACP, gave the center’s inaugural lecture.) The center will also establish a significant collection of race-related assessment tools, techniques, and research resources; its cumulative knowledge and technical expertise will be available nationally. This collection of diverse scholars and resources will nurture broad-based research efforts to identify racism and improve social conditions.

Several Pitt faculty and other national experts are helping Davis and Bangs set priorities and directions through the center’s academic advisory committee. The center also sponsors Research Advisory Panels—or RAP groups, as Davis playfully calls them—where faculty from various disciplines discuss their research interests and ideas for funding, collaborative studies, and new initiatives.

RAP participant Janet Schofield, a member of the center’s academic advisory committee and a Pitt professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has been a leading researcher on desegregation, integration, stereotyping, and interracial group dynamics for nearly three decades. She is also a senior scientist in Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center. “We’ve made incredible progress with civil rights laws in this country,” she says, “but just because the laws are in place, all the change we need to achieve full equality doesn’t necessarily follow. There has to be an equal playing field for everyone, and there simply isn’t.”

One of Schofield’s thought-provoking studies examined how stereotypes influence students’ perceptions of everyday behaviors. She and her graduate student, Andrew Sagar, gathered a group of 80 sixth-grade boys, half of whom were Black, the other half White, at a middle school in the northeastern United States. The research team used artists’ drawings of students bumping into other students in the school hallways and of similar acts that could reasonably be interpreted in different ways. The various drawings involved both White and Black initiators of these behaviors and White and Black recipients of them. Consistently, both the White and Black sixth graders rated these behaviors as more mean and threatening when Blacks were the initiators. “In other words,” says Schofield, “kids interpreted the same behaviors differently depending on the skin color of the bumper.” Subsequent similar research, conducted by others elsewhere, has produced the same type of results with both children and adults.

The center’s work, then, can be useful in helping the nation recognize race-based misconceptions and unconscious stereotyping. Schofield says that, despite best intentions and the desire to be fair, most people simply are not colorblind. Consequently, she has been especially pleased to see her research papers sitting on desks in the Capitol and U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Research, she says, does find its way into public policy debates and decisions.

Lu-in Wang, a Pitt professor of law, agrees. She, too, is on the center’s academic advisory committee, and she also participates in the RAP group on interracial group relations. For several years, she has been exploring the legal aspects of hate crimes, delving into social science research to broaden the legal perspective. She writes articles that seek to influence decisions about hate crimes law, prosecution, and defense.

This year, Wang participated in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture at Pitt’s School of Law, a frequent partner with the center. She introduced the lecture’s invited speaker, Jody Armour, a former Pitt law professor who is now at the University of Southern California. During the lecture, Armour acknowledged Schofield’s work and discussed several other projects that point to the prevalence of unconscious discrimination based on ingrained racial stereotypes. “These automatic-pilot stereotypes drive our perceptions and our judgments,” he says. “And these same stereotypes—these cognitive monsters—also exist inside the heads of the stereotyped group.” What Armour further suggests, says Wang, is that while people may be applying stereotypes without realizing it, people can also overcome that stereotypical thinking if they’re made aware of it.

Pitt’s School of Law recently recruited Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, husband and wife. Delgado is a leading critical race theorist and scholar. Stefancic is a noted legal writer and scholar. Both cite the center as an enticement to come here. Their named professorships honor Derrick A. Bell, a 1957 graduate of Pitt’s law school, who is widely regarded for his scholarship and leadership on issues dealing with race and law, especially critical race theory. In 1990, he resigned his tenured faculty position at Harvard to protest a lack of minority women faculty members. Bell is now a visiting professor at New York University’s law school.

Kathleen Blee, a Pitt sociology professor, collaborates with Wang through the Center on Race and Social Problems. Blee has spent much of her career studying hate crimes from a sociological perspective, while Wang has looked at hate crimes through the lens of the law.

Blee’s work has identified two basic forms of racism—what she calls ordinary racism and extraordinary racism.

“Ordinary racism is very hard to see if you’re White,” she notes. “It’s the sea you swim in, with assumptions that individuals might not even be thinking about or aware of.

“Extraordinary racism,” says Blee, “is more extreme and more rare.” For a just society, though, it’s not rare enough. “It’s based on hate and a desire to act on that hate.”

Wang adds that an examination of the dynamics of hate crimes can help to reveal less obvious aspects of everyday discrimination. “In our society,” she says, “there are so many levels at which race matters and, if you don’t address all of the different levels, then you’re not really getting at the problem.”

The center’s research-based findings, leading to practical solutions, hold much promise as a potent antidote to the obstinacy of racism. “This is a society that thinks about color a lot. But we don’t talk about it,” says Blee. “To talk about it, to think about how our society is racially, that’s opening the secret door.”

If the center can successfully open that door, perhaps Davis will no longer find himself asking: “If we were the slaves, why are they so angry with us?”

Cindy Gill is a senior editor of this magazine.

We live in a small world.

If we could shrink the earth’s population to a village of 100 people, with existing ratios remaining the same, the world would look like this:

There would be 57 Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 from the Western Hemisphere (both north and south), and eight Africans.

Fifty-two of the 100 would be female. Seventy would be non-White. Seventy would not be Christians.

Six of the 100 people would own 59 percent of all the wealth in the world, and all six of these would be from the United States.

Eighty of the 100 would live in substandard housing. Seventy would be unable to read and write. Fifty would suffer from malnutrition.

Only one would have a college education. Only one would own a computer.

Looking at the world in this way, we are reminded of our mutual dependence and mutual responsibilities.

Remarks from the Inaugural Lecture of the Center on Race and Social Problems delivered by Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP.

Copyright 2003 by Julian Bond.

Dean Larry E. Davis

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg with Julian Bond on the Pitt campus

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