U.S. Schools Increasingly Segregated, Author Says

Author and Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum talks about her book Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation. Tatum talks to host Farai Chideya about what she means by "resegregation."

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I am Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Can we talk about race? That's not the kind of question most people want to ask in a roomful of strangers, but it's part of a day's work and calling for Beverly Daniel Tatum. Tatum is the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, and she's written and lectured for years about race and education. Her latest book is called "Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation." She recently sat down with me at our NPR West studios and explained what she means by resegregation.

Ms. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM (President, Spelman College): Well, I just find school resegragation really having to do with the increasing racial isolation of black and Latino students in minority schools, the racial isolation of white students in white schools, much as we would have defined segregation in the 1950s. However, it of course is no longer legalized. It is a consequence of housing patterns and school choice preferences that are being exhibited by white parents as well as parents of color.

CHIDEYA: You have a section in your book where you talk about Detroit and the North becoming highly segregated. This is not just a problem that exists in the South, where we think of the seat of civil rights-era racism.

Ms. TATUM: Actually, you're right. Northern schools have been segregated for a long time and have been particularly resistant to desegregation efforts, in part, because of the way people of color are concentrated in urban areas and white flight to suburban communities has made it difficult to desegregate schools without cross-district busing programs, most of which are no longer being supported. So even though we have this idea that segregation is a Southern problem, school segregation has actually been more intense in the North than the South in the last half of the 20th century.

CHIDEYA: So, on the one hand, you have the geographic issues of segregation, and then you also have generational and power issues. You mentioned these startling statistics about teachers: Only 15 percent of all teachers are people of color, 7.5 percent are black. And you quote Stephen Hancock(ph) saying that "Instead of providing students, schools and communities with better learning environments, Brown created and continues to create environments where African-American and other minority students and white women teachers share dysfunctional relationships built on fear, ignorance, mistrust and resentment." That's some tough talk. Do you believe that?

Ms. TATUM: It is tough talking. When I quote Stephen Hancock, one of the things that I say about his quote is that it sounds harsh but in fact that is the reality in some places. Certainly there are many white teachers who have grown up with images of young black youth as dangerous who enter into environments where they feel uncomfortable. That doesn't mean that they are intentionally hostile at all.

In the same way, the parents of kids of color themselves have had often difficult experiences in schools, and so they bring to the school interaction often a history of distress. And that makes for a hard mix when you're trying to build relationships you need for effective teaching in the classroom.

CHIDEYA: You created your own set of ABCs. We know the alphabet, but what are your ABCs of an effective integrated learning environment?

Ms. TATUM: The ABCs are this: A, affirming identity; B, building community; and C, cultivating leadership. Affirming identity refers to the fact that all of us want to see ourselves reflected positively in our environment. So it's important for children, all children, to see themselves reflected in the curriculum, among the teachers, in the classroom, what's on the walls. The B, building community, really speaks to the fact that in an effective learning environment, everybody should feel included, part of that community. C, cultivating leadership, refers to the fact that in order to be an effective citizen, not to mention an effective leader, you need to know how to interact with people different from yourself. And our young people need to have some experience with that, and if we're not providing it, we're going to have increasingly difficult challenges in trying to create the kind of effective work environments that we're preparing our young people for.

CHIDEYA: Now how do you teach your students at Spelman College, which is a historically black college, about these interactions? I would wager that most if not all of your students have some cross-racial friendships or associations somewhere in their life, but here they are in an overwhelmingly black environment.

Ms. TATUM: One of the benefits of coming to Spelman College for many of our students is that it gives them an opportunity to have connections with other black women who are academically successful, high achievers. And that is, for some of them, an opportunity that has been limited, in part, because they may have grown up in predominantly white environments where they were one of few black kids in the school. We do recognize the importance of being able to connect with people different from yourself, and so one of the things that we do is to make visible to our students the diversity that is right there within our own community.

For example, many of the young women who come to Spelman are Christian and have grown up with a very strong Christian tradition. Yet at the same time there are quite a number of Muslim students at Spelman. In terms of cross-racial interactions, we are delighted that our students take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad, participate in domestic exchange with predominantly white institutions during their junior year, and to participate in ongoing kinds of inter-collegiate activities.

CHIDEYA: I want to bring us back full circle to this idea of resegregation. How important, in the end, is it that we figure out a new strategy to deal with this resegregation? Or is this intractable right now under our legal and social system?

Ms. TATUM: One of the reasons I wrote the book and talked about the process of school resegregation is because I do not think there's widespread knowledge among the American people about the backward movement. Just, you know, a few years ago, the 50th anniversary, in 2004, it was the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and we celebrated the success of Brown's so-called success.

However, when we spent all that time talking about Brown, we didn't necessarily hear about the other court decisions that have been quietly unraveling Brown. Even as we speak, there is a court case pending at the Supreme Court that has to do with magnet programs, voluntary desegregation programs. These are schools that have special programs often located in urban areas, in minority communities, and that attract white students to them. However, in order to maintain racial balance, those school districts pay attention to the ratios to make sure that the schools are indeed balanced. And the cases that are pending now involve white parents who have sued the schools because they've been upset that their own children have not been accepted to the schools and have argued that if race was not being used as a factor, those children would have been admitted. And if this case is successful at the Supreme Court level it will in essence, I think, eliminate very successful voluntary integration programs around the country.

CHIDEYA: Well, President Tatum, thank you for your time.

Ms. TATUM: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College and author of "Can We Talk About Race? and Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation."

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