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Updated Classic on Race Relations

Beverly Daniel Tatum discusses revised 20th-anniversary edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

September 6, 2017
 

Beverly Daniel Tatum's 1997 book on race relations -- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? -- has become a modern classic in college and high school classrooms, used to educate and prompt healthy discussions among young people about race. Tatum, a psychology scholar, stepped down as president of Spelman College in 2015. Her first major project after leaving administration was updating the book -- still relevant but with the original version missing the elections of Presidents Obama and Trump, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the police shootings that prompted the movement and galvanized many black youth. The new version of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? was released this week by Basic Books.

Tatum responded via email to questions about the new edition.

Q: When you wrote the book in 1997, did you expect race relations in the U.S. to be better by 2017?

A: Twenty years ago my goal in writing my book was 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. I wanted to inspire readers to break the silence about racism and to use their spheres of influence to effect positive social change. Shortly after my book was published, I was on the stage with President Clinton at a town hall meeting at the University of Akron, for the launch of his Initiative on Race, and he explained that the time was right to work on the difficult issue of racism in American society because the nation was at peace and the economy was expanding. At that time, I shared President Clinton’s belief in the power of dialogue to help all of us move forward together in pursuit of racial equity and justice.

Q: What do you consider the most significant changes in the new version of the book?

A: [It is] more than 100 pages longer than the original edition; I begin with an analysis of the U.S. social and political context of the last 20 years, addressing issues such as the impact of changing demographics, persistent school and neighborhood segregation, the affirmative action backlash, Great Recession of 2008, the election of Barack Obama and subsequent “postracial” narratives, the emergence of Black Lives Matter and campus activism, and the early days of the Trump presidency -- all in the context of contemporary race relations. Readers will find my answer to the title question remains unchanged, but the psychological research supporting it has been completely updated to reflect the current state of the literature, as well as an expanded consideration of the critical issues in the identity development of Latinx, Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Middle Eastern/North African, Muslim, and multiracial youth, in recognition of the demographic diversity of the U.S. in the 21st century.

Q: Many studies show that K-12 schools are now more segregated than they were a generation ago. How much does such segregation limit understanding of one another, and how much does it complicate race relations in higher education?

A: Because of persistent K-12 school segregation, colleges and universities are among the few places where people of different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds can engage with each other in more than just a superficial way. However, because of both lack of direct contact and repeated exposure to cultural stereotypes while growing up, cross-group interactions can be uncomfortable. Even genuine efforts at friendship and connection can be derailed by awkward interactions and unconscious bias. Ideally, the college years offer a unique opportunity to engage with people whose life experiences and viewpoints are different than one’s own and to develop the leadership capacity needed to function effectively in a diverse, increasingly global, world. However, whether college students develop that capacity will depend in large part on whether the institution they attend has provided structures for those learning experiences to take place. Intentionality matters.

Q: You discuss the issue of white identity, and yet many scholars who talk about white people as a group get slammed these days -- it seems to be something of a third-rail issue. Why do you think it's important to talk not just about black identity but white identity?

A: In a race-conscious society, we all have a racial identity that develops in predictable ways, shaped largely by the interactions we have with others. An understanding of that identity-development process can help all of us begin to build bridges across lines of difference. With that understanding, we are better able to do what I call the ABCs of leadership -- affirm identity, build community and cultivate the 21st-century leadership we all need to dismantle the racism that threatens our diverse society.

Q: Several times since the original version of your book, we have seen major court rulings that left some thinking that affirmative action was a resolved issue (at least legally), and yet it keeps coming back, most recently with the Trump Justice Department investigating allegations of discrimination. You note that many people of different races have very different conceptions of affirmative action. How can educators promote better understanding of what affirmative action is and isn’t?

A: Because many people are confused about the basic facts of affirmative action, I thought it important to provide that information in my book, and I would urge educators to familiarize themselves with it. I provide a brief overview of the history of affirmative action policies, going back to the introduction of the term in 1965, distinguishing between quotas (which are illegal) and measurable goals (which are necessary for evaluating progress). A recent national survey indicated that as many as 50 percent of whites believe that discrimination against whites has become a problem equivalent to that against people of color, despite the fact that national data show that whites as a group consistently fare better on all measures of social or economic well-being (i.e., access to housing, education, employment, health care). Helping readers understand the differences between commonly held perceptions and measurable realities is what I have tried to do in the book, and what informed educators can do in the classroom.

Q: You end the book on an optimistic note, discussing encouraging projects. You, of course, went to press before Charlottesville and President Trump promoting the idea that there were good people “on many sides” there. Has your optimism been challenged by recent events?

A: There is no question that we are living in a difficult time, and recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere have been very disturbing. I work at maintaining my optimism because I believe that in times of darkness, we all need to generate more light. The epilogue is titled “Signs of Hope, Sites of Progress,” because we all need to remember that each of us can exercise the kind of inclusive leadership we need to interrupt the cycle of racism. With the collective hard work and effort of many, I still believe positive social change is possible.

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