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

Landmark book gets updated for a changing world
Beverly Daniel Tatum is an authority on the psychology of racism and a retired president of Spelman College.
Beverly Daniel Tatum is an authority on the psychology of racism and a retired president of Spelman College.

Visit just about any racially mixed school and you will see black, white, Asian and Latino kids clustered in their own groups. Is this self-segregation a problem to address or a coping strategy?

Beverly Daniel Tatum, an authority on the psychology of racism, says straight talk about our racial identities is essential if we are serious about communicating across racial and ethnic divides.

Tatum first addressed the question in her landmark 1997 book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? Now, 20 years later, with the national conversation about race becoming increasingly acrimonious, Tatum is back with a fully revised edition.

The update reflects the rapid demographic transformation that has reshaped our country, as well as the election of Barack Obama, the rise of Black Lives Matter and the early days of the Trump presidency.  

What was the impetus for updating the book?

While I was serving as president of Spelman College I had the opportunity to travel and talk to people and think about some of the things I had written about in the book. I felt that 20 years later some of it needed to be updated.

When I retired as president in 2015, it seemed like the perfect post-presidential project to work on.

So much has happened in 20 years, but then you could also say that so much has happened since you wrote the prologue to this book in March.

Yes. This book goes a little bit past the inauguration of our current president. And there’s a lot that’s happened since then, of course—Charlottesville in particular. But I was happy that I was able to include information about the events leading up to the election and certainly the 60 days after the election.

Certainly the tenor of what’s happening in our country, I think, can be traced back to that 20-year period if not before.

You cite the statistic that every day the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90 percent of that growth consists of people of color—not just African-American but Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino and so on.

Certainly one of the things that I wanted to do was to expand the discussion of identity issues for populations of color that have grown significantly since that first book. 2014 was the first year that the U.S. population of school-age children was 50 percent children of color. And, as you’ve pointed out, that’s not just black kids.

When I’m using that phrase children of color I’m including the Latino population, which is the largest population of color today in the United States—close to 18 percent now. And the black population is about 13 percent. The Asian-American population—which includes people from China, South Asia, India and so on—is about 6 percent.

Every race and ethnicity in this country has a sense of identity, but you say that’s often lacking in the white population.

You describe a white girl who, when asked about her identity, replied, “I’m just normal.” Is that part of the problem?

It is a lack of awareness. But I want to say that the lack of awareness that white people often have around racial identity is similar to the lack of awareness that anyone in a dominant group is likely to have. When you are on the margin, you are more aware of that identity because people bring it to your attention.

So for white people, most of whom are still living in majority white communities and working in largely white settings, it’s no surprise that that dimension of identity goes unnoticed. If you are the only white person in a largely black environment, you’re going to be paying attention to it. One of the strongest tools is teaching by example.

You describe one effort—the Atlanta Friendship Initiative—to bring people of different races together. How does that work?

It was the brainchild of a white man in Atlanta named Bill Nordmark, and he sought out a relationship with a black man he knew only casually, John Grant. But he explained his idea to John and asked John if he would be willing to work with him on it, and John was very enthusiastic in his reply.

They set out to identify pairs of people who would be willing to make a commitment to get to know each other across lines of difference. Today there are more than 200 people participating, but the list is growing all the time.

The people who are asked to participate basically agree to do two things. One is to meet with your partner four times a year, once a quarter. And then have some gathering of your family and that person’s family at least once a year.

So really it is about developing friendships, but friendships with people you probably wouldn’t know otherwise and who are different from you in some significant way.

And as the Friendship Initiative has gotten more visibility, people from other communities have been contacting the founders to say, “We really like this idea and we’d like to try it in our town, how would we do that?”

Can something like that take place in a K12 environment?

Well, the idea behind it is that when you bring people together there’s a basic social/psychological principle operating. Bringing people together on equal footing and asking them to engage in a cooperative activity that is sponsored or sanctioned by authorities tends to improve inter-group relations.

Sports teams are the classic example of that. Everyone on the team is there because they know how to play. So in that sense they’re all equal. They’re asked to do something cooperatively.

I always think of former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, who really had a good understanding of racial relations. He often attributed that understanding to his experience playing professional basketball, because he got to know black players and got to see the way in which they were treated differently than he was.

That opened his eyes to the issues of racism.

This is to say that it is certainly possible in a school setting to bring children together and ask them to work cooperatively toward a common goal in ways that can encourage better understanding and improve group relations.

Part of the challenge that we have in schools is that children are not being brought together on equal terms. They’re being separated, with some groups being labeled as smarter than other groups. And we know that there’s a high correlation between racial group membership and where you get placed.

There are things that schools can do structurally that certainly can help young people get to know each other and have positive relations. And when schools do those things you are much less likely to see the kind of rigid separations in cafeterias that we were talking about at the beginning.

You end the book hopeful but, again, that was before the administration rescinded DACA, threatened the Dream Act and instituted a travel ban. Is your hope still as strong?

Well, it does worry me, because progress is rarely linear. It’s usually two steps forward, one step back—you make progress, then there’s resistance to that progress and a backlash against it.

We can lift up the example of the election of President Obama in 2008—whether you liked him or not—as symbolically significant that the United States elected the first African-American president.

That said, immediately following his election there was the backlash of growth in white supremacist hate groups and also concerted efforts at voter suppression. We see two steps forward and sometimes a step or a step-and-a-half backwards before we move forward again.

I think there’s widespread agreement that we’re now in a backward moment. I do believe it’s possible to move forward again. But that’s not going to happen without a concerted effort. If there’s a message to the reader, it is that we all have to take responsibility for that forward motion if we want to see it happen.


Tim Goral is senior editor.