Can We Talk about Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation

Can We Talk about Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation by Beverly Daniel Tatum (Beacon Press, 168 pages, $22.95)

Beverly Daniel Tatum argues that we must talk about race in order to combat insidious school resegregation and make good on the promise of our nation’s diversity. Policies reinforcing residential segregation patterns and federal judicial decisions that release school districts from previous court-ordered desegregation plans are producing a generation of schoolchildren with less reliable daily contact with people of other races than their parents had. “Meaningful opportunities for cross-racial contact are diminishing, especially in schools.” Tatum forcefully describes resegregation’s disastrous effects: concentrations of poverty or wealth, lack of meaningful contact among members of different racial groups, and the injury individuals and our nation suffer when race-sorted cohorts of children miss out on the education to which they are due.

Even as she establishes this bleak big picture, Tatum delivers her key message: we are the stewards of our multiracial heritage, and we must act. We can talk about race and we must consciously shift our priorities to do so. As she describes resegregation and the negative effects of unexamined racial assumptions on student performance, Tatum covers familiar ground. But the central question, “What can we do about this?” makes this disturbing material compelling. You can develop “the ABCs of inclusive learning environments: affirming identity, building community, cultivating leadership.” We can do the hard work of uncovering unconscious beliefs about White, Black, and other children.

Tatum reinforces the effects of knowing students well, holding students to high standards, and supporting them in personalized ways. She also examines the promise and challenges of interracial friendships. “Human connection requires familiarity and contact,” she reminds us. “Connection depends on frankness, and a willingness to talk openly about issues of race.” Contact among diverse groups of students is necessary, but not enough. Knowing how to talk about race is fundamental for meaningful connection.

Can We Talk about Race? reinforces our ability and commitment to talk about race, emphasizing that the kind of race-conscious, personalized, achievement-driven schools that we’re creating are good for kids – and for ourselves. As we talk, we strengthen the equity gains that are the legacy of the ongoing demand for civil rights and freedom for all.