When it comes to race relations in America, many meaningful advancements have been made over the last several decades — but there still is a long way to go in the name of equity.
At least that was the message put forth by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a nationally recognized authority on racial issues in America. She was the featured guest speaker of Pasco-Hernando State College’s 36th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative event.
The Jan. 21 virtual event was organized by the college’s department of global and multicultural awareness.
A clinical psychologist and sought-after leader in higher education, Tatum is president emerita of Atlanta’s Spelman College and author of several books, including the best-selling, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
The speaker also is the recipient of numerous honors, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Academic Leadership Award in 2013 and the American Psychological Association’s Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology in 2014.
Tatum opened the conversation by emphasizing the racial progress the United States has made since her birth in the early 1950s.
She shared a story about her own family’s prior struggles.
She detailed how her Black father, Dr. Robert Daniel, was unable to attend Florida State University in 1954 and obtain a doctorate in art education because it was a segregated institution, for whites only.
Rather than simply allowing Tatum’s father to attend FSU, the state of Florida instead opted to pay for his transportation costs to another institution out of state — Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania.
Tatum observed: “Today that sounds ridiculous, right? It sounds like, ‘Why would the state do that?’ and yet that was the reality then. The fact that today Florida State is quite a diverse institution, certainly no longer whites only, all of that lets us know there has been progress.”
Pushback against progress
Despite gains, compared to the 1950s and 1960s, Tatum said there has been nationwide resistance following these periods of social progress — particularly around the turn and throughout the 21st century.
It was evident even during the President Barack Obama years, Tatum said, when a provision of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 was struck down by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. That decision allowed nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without federal oversight.
Some states, in recent years, also have reversed various affirmative action measures.
California voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996, which says the state cannot discriminate against or grant preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, specifically in the areas of public employment, public contracting and public education.
This decision, Tatum said, dramatically decreased the African-American student population and other minorities at California State universities.
Tatum also criticized decision-making policies surrounding incarceration, anti-drug efforts and the so-called War on Drugs, which she claimed has yielded a dramatic increase in the incarceration of people of color, particularly Black men and women.
The speaker suggested many of these drug policies “were racist by nature,” giving examples of disparate prison sentences for a non-violent Black individual in possession of crack cocaine, compared to a white individual caught with powder cocaine.
Tatum underscored the negative impacts this “racial bias in the justice system” has caused for many Black communities and families: “What happens to you if you come out of jail and you’ve served your time, and you can’t rent an apartment and it’s hard to get a job?”
Tatum also took aim at discriminatory housing and lending policies to Black families, which she said is still felt today even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 officially made real estate redlining illegal.
Over the years, Black families — even those with high-quality credit ratings — oftentimes received loans with less desirable terms than white families with similar incomes, credit and purchase power, she said.
This all came to a head during the 2008 recession, Tatum said: “Many of those unfavorable loans were coming due and when the economy tanked, those loans tanked, and many people who had been given those loans found themselves in (a) position of having their houses underwater, so to speak.”
When asked what the civil rights leaders of the 1960s would think about the country today, Tatum responded: “Maybe need to revisit some of the questions they were asking and try to use that inspiration to push forward again.”
An optimistic outlook
As for where the country is headed, Tatum expressed optimism with the election and swearing in of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
She commended several of the new administration’s moves, such as reversing travel bans on Muslim countries; pausing deportations for certain undocumented immigrants; extending the federal moratorium on evictions; and extending the pause on federal student loan payments and collections, and keeping their interest rate at 0%.
“I am encouraged by some of the things that our new president already has done through his executive orders,” Tatum said.
But, much more needs to be done, from the speaker’s viewpoint.
The push for a living wage is “a really critical issue” to help uplift more Black families out of poverty, Tatum said.
The problem has persisted even since Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was fighting for economic justice as part of the city’s sanitation workers’ strike.
Tatum put it like this: “If you are working very hard at the minimum wage in your locale, you are going to be poor, because you cannot sustain yourself and your family on such low wages.
“I am of the opinion that if a job is worth doing, it needs to be paid at a wage that allows you to sustain yourself with dignity,” she said.
Not resolving that issue, she said, “is a strategic error, not just because it’s bad for the people who are trying to make a living — but it’s also bad for all of us to have a significant portion of our population unable to sustain itself.”
She also pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on communities of color, putting them at greater risk, because of poverty, concentrated living situations and limited access to high-quality health care.
Many people in these communities also are part of the so-called essential workforce, driving buses, working in grocery stores “and doing things that put you in harm’s way, without sufficient protection, during a dangerous pandemic,” she said.
The distinguished educator also called for increased opportunities for robust and affordable education opportunities.
She acknowledged there are available federal government programs, such as Pell Grants, to help close the gap for disadvantaged students. But, she said: “Tuitions have risen at institutions all across the country because the state funding has been insufficient to cover the costs.”
The burden of the additional costs is passed onto individuals and families, and the dilemma comes back to how much people are paid.
The median income of an African-American family is around $40,000 annually.
“You cannot afford a college education if your family income is $40,000 per year. It’s just not possible, so how do we meet the need of young people who want to be able to pursue a college education? Lots of communities are asking this question.
“We as a nation have to decide if we want to invest in the next generation. I don’t think we have made that decision in a way that is clearly visible. We really need a national initiative that says, ‘We want to invest in the next generation,’ regardless of race, understanding that if we want to be successful as a nation, we have to have access to affordable education, at a level that this post-industrial economy requires.”
Pasco-Hernando State College President Timothy Beard offered some observations regarding the current state of America’s racial issues during a recent virtual event focusing on racial equity.
“First, I want to acknowledge that we’ve come a long ways, yet we have a long ways to go,” said Beard, the second African-American to serve as president of the college.
“Race is a topic that most individuals still try to steer away from, but I think it’s a discussion that we must continue to have as a nation.
“I do believe in Dr. King’s words when he said we are a nation of ideals and we’re still progressing as an institution to become that more perfect union.
“In order for that to happen we have to be able to deal with those topics that might not be convenient, and the only way to get better is to continue to confront those things that you can change. If you don’t confront it, perhaps you can’t change.
“It is just an awesome opportunity for us to make progress as we deal with this topic of race inequality. As we look to the future, we do want to acknowledge we have what it takes for us to be successful, as chaotic as it has been the last eight, nine, 10, 11 months or so, we’re still looking for opportunities for us to be successful, and because you don’t assume, you participate, you’re being engaged in a conversation, I want to say that it’s a sign of progress.”
Published February 03, 2021