20 Years Later, Scholar Says Racism Remains Relevant Discussion in Classroom - Higher Education
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20 Years Later, Scholar Says Racism Remains Relevant Discussion in Classroom

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by Gia Savage

Two decades after the release of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a well-known educator and president emeritus of Spelman College, the text continues to be used in classrooms across the nation. Tatum was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, giving a presentation to higher education administrators at Harvard University recently when we chatted with her about the release of the 20th anniversary edition of the best-selling book.

DI: What new information can we expect to read about in this new book?

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum

BDT: It’s about a hundred pages longer, so I had a lot to say. I started the book — the new version — by reflecting on what has happened in terms of the social and political context of the last 20 years. The population has changed quite a bit over the last 20 years, as a consequence of differential birth rates, the rising population of Latinos and African-Americans, and a declining White population. But mostly, it’s changed as a result of immigration — large flows of immigration from Asia, Africa, Latin America. So, think about today’s population. Today’s population is 63 percent White. And, if you look at the younger population, I think 2014 was the first year that [among] grade school children — K-12 — kids of color represented 50 percent of the population.

So, there’s been a big shift in the demographics, and yet we still have the same patterns in terms of school population and neighborhood segregation. So, as I like to say, “New faces, same places.”

The persistence of school and neighborhood segregation and, in the last 20 years, the backlash against affirmative action and the economic disparities caused by the great recession of 2008 all have created a particularly regressive social environment so that some of the same issues that I wrote about 20 years ago in terms of the dynamics in schools and the kind of ways that racism plays itself out in daily life still are a part of our landscape in some cases.

DI: Many people consider the original version groundbreaking. What made you want to build upon that information?

BDT: Well, 20 years later, there’s a lot more information. The year 1997 was the end of the 20th century. And here we are in 2017, almost two decades into the 21st century. But the question “Why are the Black kids still sitting together in the cafeteria?” is one that’s still asked. And it’s not necessarily that the answer to that particular question is different, but I think we have to reflect on the ways in which our society has changed or isn’t changing.

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The first version of my book is really about understanding what racism is, how it operates in our society, and how it influences how we think about ourselves in terms of our own racial identities. Whether you are a person of color or a White person, everyone has a racial identity, and how we think about that is very much shaped by how racism operates in the larger society.

If we think about racism as a problem in our society — I certainly do — then we have to also think about what can we do about it. So, that’s what I was writing about 20 years ago.

And so here we are 20 years later. We’ve had the election of the first African-American president, and many people have raised the question as to whether we’re living in a postracial society. I think we would all agree right now we are not living in a post-racial society. But, we have to ask the question, “Are we making progress or not?” And if we’re not, what could we do to make some progress?

I think of it as being two steps forward, one step back. If you look at history, you’ll see that pattern: forward motion, backward motion, forward motion again. So at the end of the 20th century, we had a period of forward motion. But in the first two decades of the 21st century, we’ve seen some backward motion. And right now, of course, I think we’re living in a period of backward motion, for sure. So, the question then is how can we move forward again? That’s what I’ve tried to address in the book.

DI: How long did it take to do this research? And what mediums did you use?

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BDT: That’s a great question. You know I was kind of busy being president of Spelman College until I retired in July 2015. Knowing that the 20th anniversary [of the publication of the book] would be fall 2017, my goal was to spend that two-year period to have the book ready for the publisher by early 2017, in order for it to be ready to come out in September.

So from July 2015 through about February 2017, I was working on the book. Some of what I did to prepare for the book was to review the literature. You know, as a good scholar that’s one of the things you need to do, and a lot had been written between the time of the first publication and this version. So, I wanted to review the literature, see what research other people had been doing.

But I also was interested in feedback from readers of the book itself. So I hired a research firm, a company called Creative Research Solutions, to help me with this project. They were able to find and identify faculty members and students.

I was particularly interested in faculty who had been teaching my book in their classes. And I was interested in hearing from those folks who had been using the book as a teaching tool.

What concepts resonated for their students? What points they felt needed further clarification? What new questions and concerns students had, that I might try to address?

And then I visited a lot of college campuses over the course of that time period. I was invited to speak at a lot of different places, and whenever I was on a campus, I would use that opportunity to interview current students. I wanted to talk to as many millennials as possible, to get a deeper understanding of what was on their minds, to see how it was similar [to] or different from the student voices I had originally [interviewed] 20 years ago.

DI: What colleges did you actually visit during that time?

BDT: Well, I visited a lot. I mentioned some of this in the book. For example, I spent some time at Franklin & Marshall, which is in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was at Texas A&M. I was at the University of Michigan … Centre College in Kentucky. I spent some time at Stanford University just before the book came out. University of Massachusetts, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College — I spent time at a lot of different places.

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DI: What do you want readers to take away from this updated version of your book?

BDT: At the end, I hope they will feel hopeful. The book opens with a prologue. And in the prologue, I kind of review what’s happened over the last 20 years. And, as I mentioned, I talk about things like the changing demographics, the persistent school and neighborhood segregation. I talk about the backlash against affirmative action, the economic disparity. I also talk about Black Lives Matter, campus activism, and I was writing the book in the early days of the Trump presidency.

Those topics I just mentioned form the backdrop of contemporary race relations in the U.S. And if you read the opening prologue, it’s a little depressing to be perfectly honest. You know that there’s been so much backlash. We might look to the election of President Obama as perhaps a bright spot in the 21st century. But his election really brought out a lot of negativity on the part of the majority population. We saw evidence of that in the 2016 election, in terms of just the tone of the rhetoric of Donald Trump. And obviously, in the end, he won, right?

One of the things I tried to do was to offset that prologue with an epilogue at the end. I call the epilogue “Signs of Hope, Sites of Progress.” I wanted to provide some 21st century examples of people and places where racial barriers are being chipped away, leaving the reader with a renewed sense of optimism that change, even in the face of current division, is possible. My hope is that people who read the book [will] have a deeper understanding of how racism operates in our society, how it impacts all of us, but then ultimately what everyday people can do to make a more positive climate for everyone. So, my hope is that it ends on a hopeful note, and that people will feel inspired to take action in their own lives.

  • This story also appears in the Sept. 7, 2017 print edition of Diverse.
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