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A 23-Year-Old Book About Race Landed on the Best-Seller List Because It’s Still Relevant

GREAT MIND In 1997, Beverly Daniel Tatum was a professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where she taught a class on the psychology of racism for 17 years. She says, “One of the things I learned from that course was my students’ distress that they had not had an opportunity to talk about race or racism in any meaningful way. They’d say, ‘Why did I have to wait until I was a junior in college to have these conversations?’”

Their frustration spurred Tatum to initiate professional development workshops with teachers and school principals, encouraging them to discuss race with younger kids: “Because if you ask, why aren’t you teaching it or talking about it, they’d say they didn’t know how. They didn’t want to do it wrong.” In these conversations, certain questions came up again and again — including one that inspired the title of Tatum’s second book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race.” This classic, which was updated for its 20th birthday in 2017, is now in its second week on the best seller lists — at No. 4 for paperback nonfiction and at No. 6 for combined print and e-book nonfiction. (As students of bestsellerdom know, it’s rare for a seasoned title to make an appearance.)

Tatum says, “Everybody is reading about race, in one form or another. It’s amazing.” Now the president emerita of Spelman College, which she led for 13 years, Tatum is keenly aware of how the world has and hasn’t changed since she first published “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria.” She says, “If you were born that year, you were 4 years old when 9/11 happened. You might not remember it, depending on where you were and what you heard, but your growing up years have been shaped by anti-Muslim rhetoric and the sense of a nation under siege.” She tackled the new edition with certain touchstones in mind, including shifting demographics, the financial crisis, an evolving political landscape and the persistence of white supremacy.

“People ask me, ‘Has it gotten better?’” I can say over the 65 years I’ve been alive that some things have changed. But if you’re younger, your answer might be very different,” Tatum explains. “I’ve been writing about race and racism for 40 years. I have seen people get charged up and then seen it peter out. I’m hoping we now have a sustained effort, which is what is required to dismantle the systems that are leading to so much disadvantage in our communities.”

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