By Katie Gu
Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, is the Haas Center’s 2017 Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor. During her time at Stanford, Tatum lectured on her expertise in race relations as it applies to her degrees in clinical psychology and religious studies. Tatum authored several books on racial injustice and psychological effects, including “Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation” (2007) and “‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ and Other Conversations About Race” (1997). The Daily spoke with Tatum about her experiences with racial injustice and her studies regarding its impact on religion and education.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): In addition to your career as an author, educator and researcher on race relations, you also have degrees in clinical psychology and religious studies. How much of an influence does your background in these two fields have on how you have come to approach conversations about race?
Professor Beverly Daniel Tatum (BDT): My background as a clinical psychologist has a lot to do with my approach in that when I started my career, it was my intention to work as a therapist. And so I trained as a clinical psychologist, and I started working my first postgraduate job at [University of California, Santa Barbara] (UCSB) in the campus counseling center, working as a therapist. While I was at UCSB, I was also invited to teach a course on the psychology of racism. The course was called “Group Explorations of Racism.” The reason why I mention the “group” portion was because one of the things I had learned as a clinician was how to facilitate groups — so I think that background was really helpful in understanding the fact that many people have a lot of emotional reactions to conversations about race, and being able to recognize and manage that emotion in the context of content around race is an important part of that facilitation.
My interest in religious studies came much later. I started teaching that course on racism in 1980, and I started taking classes towards the master’s degree I earned in 1993 and finished the degree in 2000. By that time, I was working full time as a professor, then as a dean. But my interest in religious studies was fueled by my unlearning racism work. I did a lot of workshops with a colleague around the country with lots of nonprofit groups. One of those groups was a group of clergy in St. Louis. While I was working with those clergy members, one of things I realized was that leaders of congregations, regardless of the denomination, have a great opportunity to influence their congregates in ways that are important but that they were not necessarily using that influence. One of the things that I was really interested in was better understanding the theological foundations of that work. It seems to me that ultimately what we’re trying to do when we are trying to work against racism is to create a more inclusive and peaceful community, which is consistent with religious values.
TSD: From 2002 to July of 2015, you served as the president of Spelman College. How did the history of the college as a historically black liberal arts college for women come to influence your leadership as president?
BDT: I was inspired by the history, certainly. Before I became president of Spelman, I worked at Mount Holyoke College, which is also a women’s college. Spelman and Mount Holyoke have in common that women can be empowered through education that is designed specifically for them … All the things that they could experience, whether it be study abroad or research opportunities or all the kinds of important formative experiences you have as part of a strong liberal arts institution, would be available to them at Spelman in addition to having a very black female-centered environment.
TSD: You’ve written about the weight that early childhood exposures to racial prejudice carries. Could you tell me about some of your own earliest experiences with race that have had significant impacts on how you have come to view race relations in the U.S. today?
BDT: I was born in 1954, which I always think is personally significant because it was the year of Brown v. Board of Education. I was born in Tallahassee, Florida, and my father taught at Florida A&M, a historically black institution. In 1954 my father was an art professor and wanted to get a doctorate degree. In Florida, there was a university in Tallahassee called Florida State, which was segregated at that time, and so he wasn’t able to attend. They had the program he needed, but even though it was after the Supreme Court decision, a lot of southern states were very slow to implement the changes … He did his doctorate at Penn State in 1957 … [and] got a job in Massachusetts and started teaching at Bridgewater State College, now known as Bridgewater State University. He was the first African-American professor at that college.
So when we moved to that town, there weren’t that many black people living there, and so I grew up in a town where I was always one of the few African-American children in my school and almost always the only black kid in my class … Even though I was an insider—I lived there — I also was an outsider in that I was clearly different from everyone else. Being able to see things from multiple perspectives has been so helpful for me in the work that I do.
TSD: You began your book, “‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ and Other Conversations About Race,” with a note on the distinction between racism and prejudice. Can a person who is not personally racist support systematic racism?
BDT: A lot of times people will think that if “I don’t harbor animosity towards other people, if I don’t have obvious racial prejudice” —and I say “obvious” because sometimes we have unconscious bias, everyone does— but if someone is not overtly prejudiced, can they still behave in a way that supports systems of advantage? And the answer to that question is absolutely yes.
TSD: How do you define “white privilege” today, and has your current definition changed from years past?
BDT: I don’t think it has changed. If you think about privilege as a concept, it’s about unearned benefits that one gets as a result of a system of advantage. Those unearned benefits are still in place.
TSD: You’ve described the ongoing cycle of racism “as a moving walkway at the airport,” where “active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyer belt,” and “passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway.” Where is the American society today in this analogy? Has the speed of the conveyer belt changed, are there more people standing on the walkway?
BDT: That’s a great question. Right at this moment, my fear is that more people are actively walking. During the time of the election one of the things we saw was more visibility given to what we refer to as the “alt-right,” the White Nationalist movement, which in my mind is actively racist. So to the extent that that has gained momentum, then more people are actively walking on the walkway. At the same time, I would say that there are many people who are concerned and disturbed by that development, and some of those people are starting to realize that they have been passive, just standing still and that they need to walk in the opposite direction. So I think that both things are happening, if that makes sense.
TSD: How should we begin to address the problems of self-perpetuating cycles of racial segregation in neighborhoods?
BDT: It’s really striking, and I talk about this more in the new version in my book — the continuing residential segregation is a real linchpin in social stratification because of the social networks. So if you live in a neighborhood where most people are unemployed or underemployed or have low-level jobs, that’s all that you’re going to be exposed to. That’s very clear to me.
So what can we do? Well, we can certainly look at how to increase exposure. I work and live in Atlanta, and I am working as a board member, in a volunteer capacity, on a project in Atlanta that’s focused on a very under-resourced neighborhood. One of the things we’re trying to do is to bring more resources into the neighborhood to particularly improve the elementary schools that serves the majority of the children in that area. And as more resources come in, they are helping raise more money for that school to increase teachers and reduce the student to teacher ratio and bring in local executives who can serve as mentors, many of whom have personal ties to the neighborhood in the past. I think bringing back some of those resources can help make a difference — that’s the hope.
TSD: In your talk that you gave at Stanford earlier last month, Campus Conversations about Race in the 21st Century, you said that the three largest setbacks between 1997 to 2017 were the anti-affirmative action backlash between late 20th to early 21st century, the Great Recession in 2008 and mass incarceration. Why these three specific issues above the rest?
BDT: I just looked at the patterns. First of all, one of the things I talked about was the continuing school segregation and continuing residential segregation we just talked about. But in addition to that, of course there’s the Great Recession of 2008, which was very significant in terms of the greatest loss of net worth, as described by economists, in history for black and brown families. Obviously that’s very significant in terms of what happens when you lose your assets — you can’t send your kids to college — as a consequence of not having particularly stable housing or the asset of owning your own home can have in terms of intergenerational mobility. The mass incarceration issue is significant for many reasons. Of course it’s terrible for people to be swept off the streets into jails, often for minor offenses, particularly in terms of drug use. Disparate sentencing patterns and mass incarceration have significant consequences in disenfranchisement.
TSD: In your talk, you rejected the myth of a color-blind 21st century millennium — could you talk about the evidence that has led you to this rejection?
BDT: What we see is not as much color-blind as color-silent. I think that a lot of young people are uncomfortable talking about race and prefer not to talk about it. There was a survey done that I cited by MTV, about a thousand of young people from the ages of 14 to 24, and many of them talked about the fact that they had experienced or witnessed other people experiencing micro-aggressions that they were conscious that bias incidents had occurred, but that they were uncomfortable talking about them. So I think that the fact that they happen means that people are not truly color-blind, but that they don’t want to talk about them.
TSD: What can be done to break this silence?
BDT: One of the things that I think is most helpful is that education provides a real opportunity. As we’ve talked about, kindergarten through 12th grade is still pretty segregated, but higher education is not, at least not to the same degree. I think there’s a real opportunity at colleges like Stanford and other universities to create dialogue opportunities for students to begin to engage these conversations. If we don’t do this in colleges and universities, we’ve lost our last best opportunities. I was visiting a company the other day, and they are grappling these issues in the workplace — but wouldn’t it be better if we were sending people into the workplace already knowing how to have these conversations?
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Contact Katie Gu at katiegu ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Correction: An earlier version of this article omitted the answer to the question, “…support systemic racism?” and has since been restored.