Beverly Daniel Tatum, the renowned educator, advocate and author of two books about racial identity, spoke to a capacity crowd during the Engaging Communities luncheon at Ithaca College on September 14.
Nearly 300 students, faculty, staff and members of the greater Ithaca community gathered in the college’s Emerson Suites to share a meal and hear Tatum deliver her remarks, answer questions from attendees and receive an honorary degree.
Tatum is best known for her 1997 book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race,” a landmark work that helped explain the difficulties of discussing race in America, and identified ways to make those conversations easier. A revised and expanded 20th anniversary edition of the book was released earlier this month and was distributed to attendees as they exited the luncheon.
During her talk, Tatum said that when people heard she was working on the revision of the book, it often prompted the question, in regards to the title: “Is that still happening?”
“If you have been to any typical—not every, perhaps, but certainly any typical—racially mixed high school or college or university, you will certainly see that pattern,” Tatum told the audience.
The other question she often received was, “Aren’t things getting better?” and she spent the bulk of her talk answering that question. Tatum said that despite the increase in black, Latinx and Asian populations in America, historic patterns of housing and socio-economic segregation still exist, which in turn impacts the make-up of school populations.
So-called “majority-minority” schools typically have less experienced teachers, higher turnover of teachers, inadequate facilities and fewer classroom resources, she said.
“To the extent that neighborhoods are segregated, the schools remain so,” she added.
Tatum also touched on setbacks that impacted black and Hispanic families disproportionately, including anti-affirmative action backlash over the past two decades and the Great Recession of the mid-2000s. She also addressed the myth of the color-blind Millennial, which purports that generation to be post-racial in their view of others and society; survey statistics and current events show otherwise, she said.
Tatum circled back to the ways housing and school segregation not only impact minority groups, but also lead to racial insulation among many white communities. In response to the question posed in the title of her book, she countered with a question of her own:
“Why are all the white people only talking to each other?”
Still, Tatum said she’s seen signs of hope and progress, among them the rise of dialogue groups on college campuses. She cited the Michigan Community Scholars Program at the University of Michigan as a prime example. This multi-racial living and learning residential program fosters an environment in which students learn how to talk about difficult topics with—not past—each other.
Tatum said that studies of the program found that participants were more likely to live and work in diverse settings after college, be civically engaged, and be more likely to vote.
She then returned to the question about the status of race relations in America. “So is it better? Not yet. But it could be, and truly it is up to us to make sure that it is.”