Beverly Daniel Tatum On The Evolving Conversation About Race In America

Nov 20, 2017

The discussion around race in America has evolved over the past 20 years. That’s when the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race was originally published. Now, author and researcher Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is out with an updated edition. 

90.5 WESA’s Virginia Alvino Young spoke with Tatum about race relations – what’s changed, and what hasn’t. 

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG: Your book's title really brings up the question of self-segregation, or associating with people who are like you. Why is this something that we still see so often with children and adults alike?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, certainly it is the case that when you look in racially mixed schools you will find children of color sitting together, white kids sitting together. Typically, you see that among adolescents, middle school and high school. You don't often see it in elementary schools. I mention that because it really is a developmental phenomenon associated with adolescence. As you start to think about those critical adolescent questions of identity, “Who am I?” “Who will I be?” “Who will I associate with?” “How will people view me?”

It's during that time that not only are they changing, but the world is responding to them differently. How you respond to a 4-year-old black boy is very different than how you respond to a 14-year-old. You might think the 4-year-old is cute. You might think the 14-year-old is dangerous. So the cues that those young people are getting from the wider world start to change. As a consequence they seek out support from people who are having similar experiences. It's not just “I want to hang out with these people because I like them," though, of course, you might. But there are also forces having to do with race and class that are driving those behaviors.

ALVINO YOUNG: In the book you point out that whites are the most isolated group and are the least likely to come into contact with people who are racially different than themselves. You explain how, for people of color, racial segregation can impact access to social networks and really important resources. But what is the impact on race relations nationwide when whites are limited to being in a homogenous group?

TATUM: When I was born in the 1950s, the U.S. population was 90 percent white. Today, the school age population, pre-K through 12, is more than 50 percent young children of color. And what that tells us about the future is that if you haven't learned how to engage with people different from yourself, you're going to be at a real disadvantage.

ALVINO YOUNG: That might be the disadvantage for the white population, but does that have an impact on the broader state of race relations or that conversation about race?

TATUM: Absolutely it does. I think that the changing demographic impacts the conversation in a couple of ways. In one way it causes anxiety. If you are accustomed to being part of the majority and then you find yourself in a situation where you're not anymore, that can be a little unsettling. It is certainly a paradigm shift for many people to think about the United States as a multi-racial population, a multicultural society, rather than a predominately white one.

ALVINO YOUNG: The epilogue of the book is titled “Signs of Hope, Sites of Progress.” Being so entrenched in these issues, especially over such a long period of time, was it necessary for you to end on a note of optimism, or do you objectively see signs of hope?

TATUM: Well, I am an optimistic person by nature. I will confess to that. But it was important to me, as I reflected on what had happened in the last 20 years, to point to places where progress was being made. I didn't want readers of my book to feel like, “Well, that's it. We may as well just stay home. Nothing to be done about it.”

The truth of the matter is that there are always moments in history when people feel discouraged, maybe because they haven't made the progress they wanted to make or because they see signs of regression. But at the end of the day if we look at history, what moves us forward is not sitting at home feeling bad, but rolling up our sleeves and going to work. And I wanted to lift up examples of people who were doing that, using their resources, not relying on necessarily special programs or major legislation, but people who were using the grassroots power of personal influence to make change.