MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race hosted the 20th of its annual “Conversations on Race” at The Woodland in Maplewood on May 11. This year’s event featured the return of race-relations expert Beverly Daniel Tatum, nearly 20 years after her first time in South Orange-Maplewood, and she revisited many of the themes of her acclaimed 1997 book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
The event was attended by a racially and culturally diverse group that gathered to listen, learn and share ideas and questions about the racial future of South Orange-Maplewood and the nation as a whole.
According to CCR Program Director Audrey Rowe, the coalition’s yearly “Conversations on Race” event fills a need for the community to engage in “active antiracism.”
“We use the conversations to spark ideas for future action” against racism and racial segregation, Rowe said at the event. She also stressed the need for public involvement in racial dialog, saying, “It is incumbent on the community at large to be deeply engaged in conversations about racism.”
Rowe thanked Carol Barry-Austin and Sue Willis, the co-chairwomen of the Schools Committee, for organizing the evening. She then handed the microphone to Barry-Austin, who introduced the event’s keynote speaker, Tatum, who holds a doctorate in psychology.
Tatum, a clinical psychologist, race relations expert, author, educator and retired Spelman College president, began by warning the audience that her speech might be “a little depressing” because “we are living in a kind of depressing moment” with regard to race relations and racial segregation.
“The problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line. What has changed is what that color line looks like,” she said at the event, backing up her assertion with a variety of statistics and demographic information. In 1915, for example, 90 percent of the U.S. population was white, according to Tatum. This population is now aging and dying, she pointed out, with white birth rates not sufficient to sustain the white population. Add to this the fact that the number of people in the United States is currently increasing by 8,000 persons each day — 90 percent of whom are people of color — and the result is a rapidly changing populace.
Describing the changing population of the 21st century, Tatum noted that Latinos represent the largest minority, at 16 percent of the total U.S. population; blacks, she noted, comprise 13 percent of the population. From 1990 to 2010, the Asian population in the United States more than doubled. And, as of 2015, there were 3.3 million Muslims in the nation, representing 1 percent of the total population. That number is expected to double by 2050.
Despite this drastic increase in national diversity, Tatum argued that old patterns still exist.
“Patterns of segregation in the Northeast continue to rise,” she said, asserting that 50 percent of black students attend schools that are 90- to 100-percent black. This can at least be partially explained, Tatum said, by the Supreme Court having taken away proactive measures such as busing and active court intervention, leaving racially segregated neighborhoods with “little recourse” to effect change.
Tatum asserted that larger black populations within communities correspond with slower progress on racial integration. She noted the same with regard to Latino populations, adding that “the darker-skinned Latino experience is more like the black experience” than that of lighter-skinned Latinos.
“One thing to suggest improvement in race relations in the 21st century is the election of Barack Obama,” Tatum said, on a positive note. The elections of 2008 and 2012, she argued, “changed a fundamental social narrative in American culture.” They “gave the story a new ending,” she asserted, because the winner could no longer be predicted based on race.
However, Tatum said, a “lack of predictability creates anxiety,” and we are already a society whose anxiety is increasing. The economy’s collapse, the rise in terrorist attacks and the “slow recognition” that our nation’s prominence might come to an end all combine with rapidly changing demographics to create fear.
The clinical psychologist asserted that people deal with fear by either withdrawing or attacking, and pointed out that there is currently evidence of both. She described a recent sharp rise in hate groups and hate crimes, such as the 2015 South Carolina church shooting, as evidence of attack. She pointed out that the shooter was only 21 years old, a millennial; many think this age group is “not supposed to be racist.”
Millennials are OK with interracial marriage, Tatum went on to explain, but white millennials and millennials of color differ on other racial issues. White millennials often think like their parents on other issues of race, Tatum said; this results in the failed vision of a colorblind society. Society is instead increasingly “color-silent” and a society in which “implicit bias” operates outside of people’s awareness. According to Tatum, a color-silent society manifests in several ways, deciding who is helped, treated medically or shot.
“So what does better look like?” Tatum asked. First, she noted that progress of any kind is “never linear” but instead often a matter of “two steps forward, one step back,” adding that she sees this pattern in motion right now.
“A 21st-century period of reconstruction” is what we are currently living in, Tatum said. Although the United States has moved away from the era of Jim Crow laws, she noted, “we see more and more examples every day of people out of control,” pointing to social media, the news and the explosion of reality TV as examples.
The United States is “living in a dangerous time and we should take that danger seriously,” Tatum continued, adding that “what we say matters and leaders matter.” Not unlike wolves, she explained, people follow the leader and look to leaders for self-definition. She further stated that leaders must work to broaden inclusion and expand opportunities for everyone, regardless of skin color.
To continue moving forward, Tatum encouraged the grassroots type of change espoused by the Community Coalition on Race. Her charge to the audience and the community at large was to exercise leadership within their own spheres of influence. She urged the audience not to be silent on racial issues and in the face of racial prejudice, but instead to realize that silence only helps to create the climate that allows the perpetuation of racism.
Tatum said that the attendance of those at the event was a sign of hope for the future.
Following thunderous applause for Tatum’s speech, everyone in the room broke into brief discussion groups led by CCR-appointed facilitators. The groups discussed the importance of openly encouraging children and millennials to socialize outside their own race. Some agreed that parents must be extremely deliberate and intentional regarding what they want their children to know about race. Participants shared personal insights and experiences and, when asked about the most important thing to pass on to youth, one group agreed that it was the lesson that “we are more alike than we are different.”
In a post-event email to the News-Record, CCR Executive Director Nancy Gagnier said that, just because “Conversations on Race” is a yearly event, doesn’t mean discussions of racism and improving the community have to occur only a once a year.
“We hold quarterly Coffee House Discussions in local cafes. There is a Facebook group under that name that people can join. We developed that program in response to all the times people have asked for more opportunities to continue discussions they have had at the annual ‘Conversations on Race’ forums or to engage in more informal discussions of race-related issues,” Gagnier said. “We just recently held a workshop called ‘Talking to Children about Race & Culture’ that will likely be held again before next year’s ‘Conversations,’ plus each year we hold some type of discussion forum in the fall — small group book or film discussions. This fall we are holding a small film series followed by discussions that will focus on racial integration and race relations issues.”
For more information or to become involved with the coalition, visit www.twotowns.org.
Photos Courtesy of Patrick Hilaire