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  • Nicholas T McDonald

Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria?


This year I've resolved to spend all my reading hours with 1. Dead people and 2. Minority voices. It's too easy to me to fall into a white, modern fog, and this has forced me out of my comfort zone in all the right ways.

The first minority book I've read this year is "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.

This was a challenging read. I found myself in disagreement with some of the book's main premises, and I'll address them at the end. But first, let me list some helpful things I gleaned from the book, before naming a couple things I found unhelpful:

1. The psychological need for minorities to group together as a stage of development. When it comes to answering the book's question, this book is at its best. Dr. Tatum describes how important it is for young minorities to understand the meaning of their minority status positively, and how part of that positive development means finding other young people with similar experiences and ethnic backgrounds. This was really helpful to me as I work with young black men and women, and helped me to understand why so many of our black and brown students need to delve into their own historical roots in college.

2. The need for high expectations and accountability. One of the most fascinating studies from the book was about the way young black men responded to authority figures offering criticism. If the criticism was not attached to some statement of confidence, the young black students dismissed the comments as racist. However, when critiques were paired with words of affirmation and high expectations, black students responded even more powerfully to the critique than white students..."Like finding water in the desert", writes Dr. Tatum.

3. The real trauma of bigotry. If the idea of young black men dismissing comments as racist upsets you, you're underestimating the psychological trauma that comes with experiencing bigotry. The vast majority of minorities have experienced some explicit form of bigotry, and it shouldn't surprise us that this wound creates fear toward all non-minorities. This is a totally natural psychological response, and the hesitancy with which minorities treat whites should not offend or surprise us. This is a symptom of trauma, and we should gladly take the extra time to build trust in light of that trauma.

4. The psychological state of minority status. One of the most helpful illustrations in this book was that of X's and O's. If a room is filled with X's, no X's think about being an X. But the moment an O walks in, both the O's and the X's are conscious of their race. The O is responsible for representing all O's, and are fully aware they've changed the dynamics of the room. Minorities are almost always the "O" in our society, and whites are the "X's". That means whites can live largely without race consciousness (thus why we can be "color blind"), whereas black and brown people must be conscious of their status at all times.

5. Omission as a categorical sin. This has been a conviction on my heart for a long, long time. White evangelicals, including myself, have snipped away the category of "omission" as a sin. Sure, it's in theological textbooks and creeds, but it's nowhere in our language or practice. When we say, "I'm not racist" but have done nothing to help those who have real barriers, we are racist by omission. The question is not "What did I do?" The question - like in the vast majority of the Old Testament prophets toward a disobedient Israel - is, "What didn't I do to help the poor, the needy, the oppressed?" This is the question on the table for the white evangelical church today. If we're not for the oppressed, we are against them. "It is important to understand that the system of advantage is perpetrated when we do not acknowledge its existence."

These were super helpful insights to me as I think about race in our country, and especially the way I help our young minorities to develop. However, I also disagreed with some of the main premises of the book, which is why I can only hold it to three stars.

1. Dr. Tatum's redefinition of racism doesn't work. Tatum redefines racism as "a system of advantage based on race", and states that anyone privileged in that system, without resistance, is a racist. I sympathize with the point about complicity, but the redefinition doesn't work for two reasons. First, it doesn't work etymologically. This might seem like a technical point, but consider any other word in the English language where the word "ism" is attached: hedonism, fascism, capitalism, etc. The word "ism" indicates an ideology, not a system. So while Tatum wishes to separate "racism" from "racial prejudice", this is special pleading, and I think it does more harm than good.

Secondly, if the word "racism" indicates a "system of advantage", then we have no business calling individuals racist. We are not systems, though we may be part of them.

The reason this concerns me is that redefining racism in this way gives Tatum a convenient way to apply a label widely understood as "racial prejudice" - and with good reason - toward anyone in the white majority. This seems to me more of a sideways ad hominem attack than a reasoned argument.

2. The statistics don't have logical backing. This book begins with piles upon piles of statistics. I came into this book wide open to the idea that our society is indeed a system of advantage based on race, but because of the lack of logical backing behind the statistics, I found them unconvincing. Dr. Tatum doesn't take the time to give the reasons behind the different disparities (other than "racism"), she doesn't offer and argue against alternative explanations, and sometimes she clips out information which doesn't help her case. When she does offer logical support, it's in the form of anecdotes and quotes from minorities who feel discriminated against, such as one young protestor saying of the police, "I feel in my heart that they failed us. They're the reason things are like this now." That might be right or wrong, but it's not a compelling case or evidence to the point.

In truth, at times, I felt the statistics and anecdotes veered toward dishonesty. For example. Dr. Tatum's case study at the University of Missouri (where I do campus ministry) fully disclosed half of the story, where students experienced bigotry from fellow students. However, Dr. Tatum clipped out the other half of the story, in which false reports of racist activities on campus were proported by the faculty, thus justifying some of the skepticism Dr. Tatum is pointing out.

Since most of the book is compiling these unjustified (in my mind) statistical conclusions, I did not feel convinced by Dr. Tatum's case sociologically. Psychologically, it was brilliant, but in terms of showing me racial disparity, I found it lacking.

In the end, I was powerfully challenged by this book, but I was also very concerned that the kind of reasoning this book engages in is accepted at universities as sound. I also left concerned that books like this instill and even validate the trauma felt by some of my minority students by assuring them that all white people are indeed racist, confirming their fears and suspicions and compounding our country's problems rather than solving them.

So overall, it probably wasn't the right place for me to start in my readings from my minority brothers and sisters.


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