The Rational Grounds for (Anti-Racist) Optimism

by Gina Schouten on January 12, 2018

Thanks to the Crooked Timber bloggers for this opportunity! I’m very excited to be joining the group!

I just finished reading the twentieth anniversary edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, a 2017 update to the 1997 book by Beverly Daniel Tatum about racial identity development. Tatum begins the long and excellent prologue to the new edition with the question: Are things getting better? In reading the prologue, one gets the sense that the answer is quite clearly that they are not, and indeed, Tatum confirms this at the end of the book:

“As I was writing the prologue for the twentieth-anniversary edition of this book, I was struck by how much bad news there was in it. The events of the last two decades have done little to improve the quality of life for those most negatively impacted by the structural racism of our society. Recognizing and acknowledging the persistence of residential and school segregation; the economic inequality that grows from limited access to socioeconomically diverse social networks and high-quality education as well as continued discrimination in the workplace; and the stranglehold of mass incarceration, unequal justice, and growing voter disenfranchisement left me feeling disheartened. But I am an optimist by nature and I have lived long enough to know that meaningful change is possible. I was determined not to give in to a sense of despair but rather to actively seek out signs of hope—stories of people making a difference and promising practices that could move others to meaningful action. I found that these signs of hope are everywhere” (343).

Tatum goes on, in the epilogue, to “share some of what I found in hopes that the examples will uplift you as they uplifted me” (343).

Tatum’s stories are uplifting. But they don’t make me feel optimistic about the future. Some are about local initiatives like the Atlanta Friendship Initiative or the Community Coalition on Race in the towns of South Orange and Maplewood, New Jersey. Most are about things taking place on elite and liberal arts college campuses. But if Tatum is right, in the rest of her book, about how our racial identities form and when, developmentally, things begin to go wrong (spoiler alert: childhood and adolescence matter, a lot), then I don’t see why isolated anti-racist efforts of the type that she catalogues should give us much hope.

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