Educators Concerned By Segregated Classrooms

Many American children are learning in schools that do not reflect America's increasing racial diversity. Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum is author of the book Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation. Tatum talks about preparing young people to live in a multi-cultural world.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Later in the program, Alaska governor and now vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has sparked some intense conversations about how mothers can balance their work and family and if it's even our business to ask them. So, of course, we had to ask the Mocha Moms to weigh in, and that's coming up in just a few minutes. But first, we want to talk about education.

American students are heading back to school, and there's a concern that many of those students are entering classrooms that are more segregated than those at any time since the Brown versus Board of Ed Schools Supreme Court case in 1954. For decades, conventional wisdom suggested that integrating public schools was the key to improving educational opportunities for all children, but especially children of color.

Now, one educator says that integration, such as it is, just doesn't go far enough in preparing our young people to live in a multi-cultural society. Beverly Daniel Tatum the president of Spelman College in Atlanta. She is the author of "Can We Talk About Race?" It's a new book about how and why educators should talk about race. Welcome to the program.

Dr. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM (President, Spelman College): Thanks so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: You won acclaim for a prior book about race and education called "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" which opened a lot of important conversations for many educators, explaining some things a lot of times people see but didn't really know how to talk about. It's been 10 years since that book. Why this one? What new points did you feel you need to make?

Dr. TATUM: When I was writing this book, "Can We Talk About Race?", it was on the verge of the Supreme Court decision about the desegregation of public education, this particular case involving magnet schools and whether race could be considered in terms of assigning students. That was in the news.

And also, I was very much struck by the passing of Coretta Scott King and other civil rights icons at the time that I was writing the book and thinking about how our society had changed since the 50s. And in some ways, it's changed a great deal, but in another way, in terms of the actual desegregation of schools, we've seen some backward movement.

And so I thought it would be worth talking about, what does that mean in the context of, not only public education, but college education, the workplace, or own personal relationships in terms of who we get to know if we're not going to school with each other and how that plays itself out in our society.

MARTIN: Your book talks about a re-segregation of public schools, and I think the data pretty well confirms that that is, in fact, the case. The difference now, though, is there is not a government entity telling people of color, particularly black people and also Latino people in some parts of the country, where they are allowed to go to school. Isn't there a difference if people are choosing to go to schools that are segregated due to fact that that's where, perhaps, the parents chose to live? There's not sort of an outside force determining these methods, but rather, it's either the market or it's individual decisions.

Dr. TATUM: Absolutely. I think there is a difference between being told you can't go to school at some place, like the colored water fountains. That has a very important impact on how you feel about yourself and your place in society, obviously, when you're in that kind of boxed-in segregated situation.

But I think it would perhaps not be quite accurate to describe some of the school segregation we see today as simply of matter of choice because the fact is that there's still a lot of housing segregation. If we rely on neighborhood schooling, and we have segregated neighborhoods, then we, of course, are going to have segregated schools.

And some of those neighborhood choices may be a result of personal preference. But a lot of times, it's about economic access, and so maybe income is one of the factors that plays apart in a more pronounced way today than before.

MARTIN: But maybe another way to look at it is, why is this still an urgent conversation? I mean, back at the time of Brown versus Board, you couldn't open a magazine and see people of color unless it was specifically a magazine about people of color. You couldn't turn on the television. The people deemed to be in authority were very much of one demographic. That is so very different now. In fact, many people consider the young people today to be almost a post-racial society. So why is this still an urgent conversation? Why do we still need to talk about race?

Dr. TATUM: I think we need to talk about race, particularly when we look at what is happening to those people of color, the black children, the Latino children, who are in racially isolated schools, often in urban districts with high levels of poverty and when we look at what's going on in terms of the underachievement in those schools, the under performance, and the need to really invest in public education.

One of the things that I see happening in our society is a move away from that investment. We talk about the importance of education, but yet, district after district finds itself struggling for resources, and I think, to the extend that we don't talk about the racial assumptions that are often unarticulated but perhaps underlie our behavior in terms of our willingness to invest in certain communities or in certain schools, educating certain kinds of students, then we miss the boat in terms of really being able to improve our educational system.

MARTIN: In this book, you go beyond just advocating integration, and you say far more is needed. You say that educators need to get more involved in teaching students how to interact with people of other races. I want to talk in depth. But first, just the predicate, if there isn't a political will to see that students of all backgrounds get access to the resources that they need to function at their best, why would there be the political will to do this?

Dr. TATUM: Well, that's why we have to talk about it. I mean, I think that, when we talk about why it makes a difference, people's will increases. Now, I am not suggesting that we are going to see a mass desegregation of these schools that have re-segregated. In some places, it's not even possible, you know, because the demographics have shifted in such a way that urban environments are so of color, and there are suburban rings so white that, unless you get into massive busing, which has certainly been a strategy that has largely been abandoned in the United States, it's not likely to happen.

But it is important, I think, for all of us to think about what preparation young people need to be able to interact effectively as adults in a society that is multi-cultural. You know, if you're a young white person growing up in a largely white community going to largely white schools, entering into a very diverse workplace without really having ever had close relationships with people of color, how are you going to function in that environment or in an increasingly global world, if you've never really engaged with people whose life experiences or life assumptions are different from your own.

MARTIN: I think that there's a recognition across the board that the education gap, if you will, or the gap statistically, anyway, but I mean, many African American and Latino students and white students and Asians is a subject of public concern. I mean, certainly, that was behind President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative, to say that schools can no longer hide the lack of achievement of underachievers behind the achievements of the high achievers.

And I think people can recognize that if you got a whole population of students who are underachieving and that's a drag in the economy, that's a drag in the society. But if you're not in that group, why is it in your interest? Why do you care? I mean, you started to touch on this but how do you explain to say a middle class, upper class, high-achieving white family, why they should care whether their kids interact effectively with people of different backgrounds?

Dr. TATUM: Well, if you look at what happens when you get to be an adult, I mean, if your listeners imagine the workplaces that they're in, they're likely to be working in very multi-racial places. Particularly if you think about large corporate entities, Fortune 500 companies, you know, they're global companies.

I have the opportunity in my role as the president of Spelman often to meet CEOs of major corporations, and they often talk about the employees they have that simply don't know how to interact effectively and how that weighs them down in terms of the kind of teamwork they need to build competitive organizations, the kind of people they need to be able to send around the world to engage in business.

Those are the kinds of opportunities that I think most parents think about when they think about educating their children for the future. I saw a quote just the other day that said there are two different kinds of people - I think they were quoting Peter Drucker - those who think globally, and those who are looking for work. And I think it's a similar kind of situation that, if you don't know how to engage effectively with people different from yourself, you're not going to be very effective in the society that I recently heard, in 2040, will be majority minority.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about the importance of race and thinking about education with the president of Spelman College, Beverly Daniel Tatum. She's the author of a new book, "Can We Talk About Race: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation." So how exactly would this work, this vision you have for how schools can be more proactive in teaching kids about other races, particularly, as you've said, since the actual schools a lot of kids go to are not terribly integrated anymore, if, indeed, they ever were?

Dr. TATUM: Absolutely. I think that - let's talk for a moment about the largely white environment. So, if I'm a white parent, and I've got a child in a largely white school, or I'm a teacher in that environment, and I'm trying to think about, how do I help my kids understand other people's experiences outside their own, and how do I help them learn how to engage effectively with people about whom they may have little firsthand information but perhaps a lot of stereotypes, one of the things I might think about would be, what are the materials that we're using in the classroom? You know, what are we reading? What are the diverse perspectives that are being shared? What technology are we taking advantage of?

You can connect with the whole world. At Spelman, you know, people often say, well, why would you even talk about these issues because you're the president of a historically black college. And if it's so important to have diverse learning experiences, you know, why would you encourage students to come to a place like Spelman?

MARTIN: It's an interesting point.

Dr. TATUM: And I think it is an interesting point, but one that I feel quite comfortable responding to because I think that, one, there's an assumption that historically black colleges, while, it's true, are predominantly black, are not diverse. There's a lot of diversity within the community of African descent. So some of those black students may be from the continent of Africa. Some may be from the Caribbean. Some may be from Great Britain as well as different parts of the United States.

But also, these students typical are coming to Spelman often from having been one of few black women in advanced placement classes, honors classes, that even in very richly diverse schools tend to be populated largely by white students. And so, if they're coming out of that kind of high school experience, they've had a lot of opportunity to connect with young people different from themselves, but very little opportunity to connect with other talented young black women like themselves.

MARTIN: It's part of your message here, that educators, rather than trying to pretend that race doesn't exist, of being color blind, as it were, that they need to be actually more focused on race in some way, that they need to actually acknowledge that race exists and teach in a way that accommodates the realities that race does exist.

I mean, and I can - I see your point, but it doesn't it open the door to some dangerous thinking, some dangerous stereotyping in some ways? I mean, if you're in sort of a predominantly white environment, you're not exposed to a lot of individuals or people with sort of a different backgrounds, I mean, sort of a steady diet of speakers. And things of that sort, it doesn't it open the door to its own kind of judgment about who people of color are?

Dr. TATUM: One of the things that social psychologists tell us is that, if you are a member of a majority group, and your exposure to minority group is limited, you are likely to understand minority groups in terms of that limited experience.

But the point, I guess, that I think is important about talking about race, particularly with educators, is that there are unexamined assumptions that we bring into the classroom. And that, when we don't talk about them, we tend to act on them. So, when I am working in the classroom, if I have a belief, however unconscious, that some students are going to be smarter than other students, I may respond differently to those students who I think are not likely to perform as well.

MARTIN: But...

Dr. TATUM: As the ones that I think are high potential learners.

MARTIN: And clearly, this has been the subject of discussion in educational circles for a very long time. What do you say to those who argue that you're really arguing for political correctness. Because I'm thinking of a documentary I did some years ago about juvenile justice and followed the cases of four kids through the system. One was white, two African American, one was Latino in California.

And it happened that the white students whom we focused on, was the first kid we met who agreed to be in the documentary, it turns out that he had some very severe issues. One of the interviewers said to me, well, political correctness there. You know, seems like, why is it the white kid is the sickest? Well, I said, you know what? That may speak - you may think that's political correctness, but to me, this shows the bar for white kids getting into the system, maybe the bar is lower.

Dr. TATUM: Yes.

MARTIN: For minority kids, maybe you're seeing something else. But there are those who will say, if you're talking about exposing people to people of different racial backgrounds, and you're going to pick inevitably that involves editing and choosing what kinds of people to present. That's going to lead a discussion of your values and who you think is important to present. It leads inevitably to political correctness. What do you say to that?

Dr. TATUM: I don't worry so much about political correctness, I guess I would say, because it seems to me it is not about being politically correct or incorrect. It's really about examining the racist assumptions that have been embedded in our society for a long time. And I think most of us, if we are honest, can recognize that they have been there a long time.

I think there's a way in which we see our society progressing, and I would be the first to say it has progressed considerably since 1954. I mean, here we sit, you know, in an election year, where we have Barack Obama, you know, running quite competitively for the presidency of the United States. That tells us a lot about the fact that our society has changed.

But it also tells us that we are living in a society that is trying to move from one paradigm to another, and that that doesn't happen easily. And we carry a lot of old baggage with us. And so wouldn't it help if we could talk about some of that old baggage. It seems to me it helps us to lay it down, when we can at least acknowledge that it's there.

MARTIN: I cannot let you go without asking you what affect the election of Barack Obama as president might have on these images that people have of African Americans?

Dr. TATUM: Certainly, I think that, if Barack Obama is elected president, it will really send a very important signal to young people of all races around the country about what is possible in our society. Certainly, change is possible. I was born in 1954, and you know, growing up, I don't think I ever imagined that I would see a president of color elected in the United States, and I can imagine that there are people much younger than I am who might have also wondered about that as a possibility. So, just that result in itself, I think, signals a huge paradigm shift in our society.

But I think it's also important to say that it doesn't mean all of our problems are solved. And I think that is a potential danger that we don't want to find ourselves saying, well, race is no longer a factor in people's lives because we've elected a black president. You know, that would be unrealistic, and I think there's still more work to be done

MARTIN: Beverly Daniel Tatum is the president of Spelman College in Atlanta. Her latest book is "Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation." She was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. Dr. Tatum, thank you so much.

Dr. TATUM: Thanks so much for having me.

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