20 years later, Beverly Daniel Tatum asks again: 'Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?'

This originally aired on Oct. 10, 2017 and was rebroadcasted on Dec. 28, 2017.

Beverly Daniel Tatum wrote "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" more than two decades ago.

The title came from her years of research experience, traveling from school to school all over the country.

Often people would ask her that question, Tatum told MPR News host Tom Weber: "Why are all the black kids sitting together?"

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

And it was "often in a tone that would suggest and what can we do to prevent it," Tatum said. "Like it's a problem."

"What I like to say about that, is that our concern should be less about what kids are doing in their free time at lunch and more about what's happening in the classroom."

Tatum's groundbreaking book took on this question of self-segregation and explored the realities of race in the public education system. It looked at how issues of race play out on a daily basis — like in something as simple as where you sit to eat your lunch. The book asks how people can talk more openly about racial issues, even if they're uncomfortable.

Now, the publisher has re-released "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together" with new, additional content. And the book is more relevant than ever, Tatum said.

"Our population is much more diverse today than it was even 20 years ago," she said. At the same time, there is "even more school segregation than we had 20 years ago."

When working on the revised edition, Tatum thought through the milestones of people born the year the book the first came out — 1997.

Young people born in 1997 were four years old on Sept. 11. They were 11 when the economy crashed and when Barack Obama was elected. They were 15 when Trayvon Martin was killed and 17 when Michael Brown's death sparked protests in Ferguson. They were 19 when Donald Trump was elected, and 20 when Charlottesville happened.

All these events have shaped the world they grew up in, and by extension, have shaped them. Their education experience has also been shaped by Supreme Court decisions made long before they were born.

The self-segregation Tatum saw across the country is something that emerges as students grow older.

"As children approach adolescence, they start to think in a more adult way about what their own identities are, and what it means to be a young person of color."

One reason students from similar racial backgrounds may gather together, Tatum said, is that "connecting with peers who are having a similar experience as your own serves as a buffer, as a protective force. ... [It] is also a way of affirming your identity."

There are students Tatum met in her research, she said, whose cafeterias didn't self-segregate like so many she'd seen before.

Those students, she said, are often "in a school where there have been some very intentional practices around what I call the ABCs: affirming identity, building community and cultivating leadership."

"We have to be intentional in helping young people connect across lines of difference."

For the full discussion with Beverly Daniel Tatum on "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Converastions about Race," use the audio player above.