Why America Still Needs Historically Black Colleges

Beverly Tatum, the outgoing president of Spelman College, explains how schools created for African Americans in the 1800s can help desegregate the rest of the country.

At the beginning of her 1997 book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the School Cafeteria?, psychology professor Beverly Tatum recalls an encounter with a white student who was surprised that Tatum was teaching a course on racism. "Oh," the student said, "is there still racism?"

Tatum has spent much of her career answering that question, explaining that yes, there is still racism, even as she works to change it. After 12 years as the president of Spelman, the historically black women's college in Atlanta, she will be retiring at the end of this year. I spoke to her recently about race, higher education, and her hopes for the future.

Noah Berlatsky: In 1997, you wrote that America needed more discussion of race. Do you think things have improved in this regard with the Internet and social media?

Beverly Tatum: Well, I don't think the kind of dialogue you get on social media is the kind of dialogue I had in mind. I mean, let's talk about tone. When you're sitting face-to-face with someone, that doesn't guarantee civility, but you can read body language, you can hear tone of voice, you can hear the nuance of what someone says, in a way that's different from when you're reading characters.

If you're talking about conversations about race, most people have had very limited experience in having a meaningful or sustained dialogue about racially sensitive topics in a racially mixed setting. If they talk about race, they talk about it with people who share their own cultural background, more often than not.

And a lot of that has to do with the fact that that's where people live. We still live in a society that has a great deal of social segregation. The opportunity to really engage one another in the kind of dialogue that allows me to share my experiences of the world, and allows you to exchange your experiences of the world, allows me to challenge the assumptions that you might be making based on stereotypes, or let someone question my privilege—that kind of conversation is hard to have. And unless you're really willing to engage and move past the point of discomfort, it's hard to benefit from the conversation.

Berlatsky: In your more recent book, Can We Talk About Race? you discuss the ways in which the United States has largely abandoned Brown v. Board of Education. So, how do those concerns about resegregation fit in with teaching at a historically black college?

Tatum: Well, I don't see Spelman addressing that problem; it's not our mission. But the fact of the matter is that many of the students who choose to come to Spelman are coming from communities where they have clearly been in the minority. It is often surprising to the casual observer that if you talk to students, they will often say, "I was one of a handful of black kids in my school. One of the reasons I wanted to be at Spelman was because I wanted to be at the center of the educational experience, not on the margins of it the way that I felt like I was in high school."

I think it's important to say that historically black colleges were created at a time when there was no other option. When Spelman was founded in 1881, it was illegal to teach black people to read. So the radical idea of the two founders who came to Atlanta from Massachusetts was that they would create an educational opportunity for women who would then educate their children, their neighbors, and their church members, and help literacy spread.

Many of Spelman's graduates went on to earn graduate degrees in northern institutions and then became leaders in all sorts of fields that opened doors for other people. So ultimately that can lead to desegregation, because those are the women like Rosalind Brewer, our board chair, who went on to be the CEO of Sam's Club—leading a diverse organization and demonstrating that black women can be in charge.

Berlatsky: Is it possible to achieve real diversity in higher education at a time when poor or even middle-income people aren’t able to attend college without going into massive debt?

Tatum: If you just look at who gets a college education in the United States, we know that among adults over the age of 25, about 35 percent of white adults have a college education. If you're talking about African Americans, that number is 21 percent. Among Latinos I think the number is more like 16 percent.

So if I’m an African American parent without a college education, I am probably in a job that is not allowing me to make a lot of money. Fifty percent of African American families earn $40,000 or less. If I don't have a college education, and I'm making $40,000 a year, it's going to be very difficult for me to send my kids to college anywhere. Spelman, for example, costs about $40,000 a year. I like to say that Spelman is a bargain, because we compete with other top liberal arts colleges, and many of those schools are closer to $60,000. But even if you want to come to Spelman, it's hard to afford.

And so one of the challenges we have to think about as a nation is how we want to help young people finance their education. How are we going to invest in the next generation? We know that we're a society that requires more and more advanced education. It's not possible, in the way it once was, to graduate from high school, get a manufacturing job, earn a living wage, and take care of a family. Even if you're in a manufacturing job, it's likely to require more technical skill than it did at one time. And so we have to think nationally, and I don't think we are thinking very clearly.

The solution that I've sought in my role as the president is to raise more and more money for financial aid through scholarships. The truth is there are people with discretionary income who can invest in the education of somebody else's child. And the good news is we've been able to tap into that philanthropy.

Is that the solution for the entire nation? Probably not. But we have to think about the ways in which we are burdening students with not only student loan debt but the interest associated with student loan debt. Why are the interest rates what they are when you can get a car loan cheaper?

Berlatsky: We have a black president now … but on the other hand, we recently had Mike Brown's death and the protests in Ferguson. Do you feel that racism has improved over the course of your time as an educator?

Tatum: I like to tell the story of my family. My father in 1954 wanted to earn his doctorate in art education, and could have done so at Florida State in Tallahassee where he was living. He could have done so—in the sense that they offered the program. But he was unable to attend because FSU was still a segregated institution. Like a lot of Southern states, the response to Brown v. the Board was a slow one; so the state of Florida did what a lot of states did, which was to accommodate the law by paying for his transportation to a school out of the state. So he earned his doctorate at Penn State.

I like to tell that story because by the time I graduated, I was able to go to any college I wanted. And certainly that's been my children's experience. They've had a lot more freedom of movement than my parents ever did. In that sense there's been a lot of change.

But at the same time there's still a lot of the hostility—especially in the backlash against President Obama's election. So on the one hand we have a lot of social progress, and on the other hand there is this backlash against it. We're in the process of creating a new social narrative, which causes a lot of anxiety. There's a familiar story which is—well, you've seen this movie: You've got a white character and a black character and usually the black character is eliminated before the movie is over and the white guy comes out at the end as the hero. That's a familiar plot. But in the 2008 election, it had a different ending. And it's an unsettling ending for people who have grown up with the assumption that white people are supposed to be in charge.

Berlatsky: So even in light of Ferguson, are you hopeful that things will continue to improve?

Tatum: I think we have to understand progress as not steady, but halting. If you look historically, we had Reconstruction, then Jim Crow. There's a pattern of forward movement, then regression, then more forward movement. Generally speaking, I am an optimist, and I do think there is opportunity for forward movement. But I don't think we should expect it to be smooth sailing. It requires struggle.