Tatum brings challenging message to January Series on MLK Day



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

In her soft-spoken way, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum told the large crowd at her lecture in Calvin College’s January Series that it is not time to  rest in the struggle to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream come true.

Her presentation, called “Why Are All the Black Kids Still Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations on Race,” was given on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 15. Miller Johnson Law Firm sponsored the event.

The title takes off from her renowned 1997 book on students and racism, but with a variation – the addition of the word “still.”

And, she argues, the message of that book, which is that people in the U.S. are reluctant to talk about race, resulting in negative impacts felt by all, is still valid today.

“Neither my generation nor the centennial generation is living in a post-racial, color-blind society, but instead we live in a color-silent society where we’ve learned to avoid talking about racial differences,” she said.

“But the evidence is clear. We still notice racial categories and our behaviors are guided by them. Those biases manifest themselves in ways that matter — who we offer to help, who we shoot at instead of de-escalating.”

Very close to the beginning of her talk, Tatum recognized that many people consider the election of President Barack Obama to be an indication that race was no longer a problem.

She noted how vividly she re-
membered the “tears and cheers” that greeted Obama’s election at the historically black women’s Spelman College, where she was president from 2002 until her retirement in 2015. But, Tatum added, “At the time, in a USA Today poll, 67% expressed pride in the racial progress that his election showed, even if they hadn’t voted for him.” This included a large turnout of millennials, many of whom voted for the first time.

Tatum referred to a New York Times article by Gene Demby on “The Stubborn Myth of the Colorblind Millennial.” Her contention is that white members of the generation have simply closed their eyes to the subject of racism, similar to their parents and grandparents, despite making statements that reflect a belief in diversity. Demby’s article, spurred by the hate-filled actions of 21-year-old Dylann Roof, bears that out.

In keeping with that, there was a more sinister side to the Obama election. Tatum added, “[In the USA Today poll], 27% said the results of that election frightened them. For some small segment, unvoiced and maybe even unconscious, the election meant that the racial calculus of the society was changing.”

This, she said, resulted in “anxiety, even fear,” with the “typical” responses of withdrawal and attack. And though she was cautious about painting too  stark a picture lacking in nuance, she noted that both of these responses may have led to the current situation, when hate crimes are on the rise.

She noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded over 900 acts of intimidation in the 10 days after Donald Trump’s election. (That figure came from SPLC’s Report Hate Page, so it is likely to represent just a percentage of such hate-based acts.)

Tatum, a trained psychologist, commented, “Leadership matters because our brains are organized to categorize — people, places, furniture” (with a smile) “and we look to the leader to help us know who is Us and who is Them.”

She followed that up by quoting Martin Luther King, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Those words follow one of Dr. King’s most-quoted statements, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and to that he added, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Tatum is herself one of those leaders who have an influence over the way people process what happens.

The 63-year-old author, lecturer, educator, and administrator was born in Florida and raised in Massachusetts. She attended Wesleyan University for her B.A. in Psychology, and then moved on to the University of Michigan for both her M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.

After a stint at the University of California at Santa Barbara teaching Black Studies, she went on to Westfield State College, in Massachusetts, as a professor of psychology. That was also her initial title at Mount Holyoke College, also in Massachusetts, a woman’s college which was the first of the historic Seven Sisters schools.

While at Mount Holyoke, Tatum was also named a dean, the Vice-President of Student Affairs, and acting President of the College. She left there to become President of Spelman College, part of the Atlanta University Center academic consortium. Founded in 1861, Spelman is the oldest, private, liberal arts black women’s college in the United States. Her tenure there was highly successful, including a substantial increased in alumni donations.

During that time period, in addition to garnering an MA in Religious Studies from Hartford Seminary, Tatum wrote and conducted research on racism and racial identity. In addition to Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, she has published Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation (2007), Assimilation Blues: Black Families in a White Community (2000), and a variety of articles centered on issues of race and education, including the widely-cited Harvard Educational Review article, “Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom.”

Since her 2015 retirement, Tatum has traveled the country not only lecturing, but looking for solutions.

“Let me just say that when I was reflecting on the 20 years since my book, I found it kind of depressing,” she said softly. “But I cannot end on a depressing note. I need to end on signs of hope.’

She mentioned the Michigan Community Scholars Program at University of Michigan, led by David Schoem and Wendy Woods, which describes itself as “a residential learning community emphasizing deep learning, meaningful civic engagement/community service learning and intercultural understanding and dialogue.” Tatum said that the community is deliberately interracial and involves intentional time to allow the students to process what happens to them. “They learn how to talk about difficult topics rather than at one another,” she observed.

The Welcome Table at the Winter Institute, University of Mississippi, “creates a safe space for diverse community stakeholders to form healthy relationships via open, honest communication.” Tatum also mentioned the Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation grant-funded projects around the nation.

Tatum closed by saying simply, “Is it better now? My answer is: not yet, but it could be. It’s up to each of us to exercise our own leadership to make sure that it is.”