Spelman’s Beverly Tatum on racism: What’s changed in 20 years?

  • Shelia M. Poole
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
12:00 p.m Friday, Oct. 13, 2017 Living
Spelman College President Emerita Beverly Tatum, shown in 2014, will speak at Spelman and sign books on Oct. 31. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Beverly Daniel Tatum wants to break the silence about race — again.

Twenty years ago, Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, published her critically acclaimed book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.”

Today, she’s often asked, what has changed?

Why are the black kids still sitting together in the cafeteria?

“Today we are a nation at war, still suffering from the aftermath of the worst recession in modern history, disturbed by simmering racial resentments, documented racial injustices and increasingly limited by a 140-character culture of communication,” said Tatum, an educator and psychologist. “All of that makes meaningful racial dialogue more difficult, but also more necessary.”

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Indeed, racial divisiveness is on the rise. The Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center reports hate and bias incidents are increasing.

Tatum believes much of that harassment is taking place in schools and in colleges and universities.

“When we see black kids sitting together in the cafeteria — or Latino kids or Asian kids or white kids, for that matter … we should not be surprised by that because, typically, they are living in segregated neighborhoods and they are often in segregated schools,” she said.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from school years 2000-01 to 2013-14 — the most recent data available — the percentage of all K-12 public schools that had high percentages of poor, and black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent. These schools were the most racially and economically concentrated: 75 to 100 percent of the students were black or Hispanic.

Much of the attention, though, is often placed on minorities, and perhaps it shouldn’t be.

“We assume, often, that when white kids are sitting together, it’s the natural way of being,” she said. “We don’t necessarily pay attention to their separation, their racial isolation, but the fact of the matter is that 75 percent of white adults have only white social networks.”

Yet schools, perhaps, also offer the most fertile ground for change.

If you are growing up in an increasingly diverse society today, she said, and don’t know how to engage with people from a different race, ethnicity or faith tradition, then people are not going to be successful in the workplace or daily life.

Not long after her first book was published, Tatum shared a stage with President Bill Clinton during the launch of his race initiative. Clinton said that the time was right to work on the difficult issue of racism in society because the nation was at peace and the economy was expanding.

“My goal for the book remains the same as it was 20 years ago, but I was determined to bring the conversation into the 21st century,” she said. More than 100 pages longer than the first edition, the book examines the U.S. social and political context of the past 20 years, addresses issues such as the impact of changing demographics, school and neighborhood segregation, the affirmative action backlash, the election of Barack Obama, emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Trump presidency.

In writing her book, Tatum said she wanted to “help others move beyond fear, anger and denial to a new understanding of what racism is, how it impacts all of us, and ultimately what we can do about it.”

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