The Road to Racial Equality
I was born in 1954 just four months after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed the “separate but equal” doctrine of school segregation. That one fact has shaped my life immeasurably. Howard University, Morris College, Spelman College and what was then called Atlanta University and Tuskegee Institute are all part of my family genealogy, historically Black institutions where my parents, grandparents and great grandparents were educated. But I am an “integration baby,” and the struggle to desegregate has shaped my life since birth.
I entered the world in Tallahassee, Fla., where my father taught in the art department at Florida A&M University. Eager to obtain a doctorate in art education, my father desired a degree from nearby Florida State University, but the state of Florida preferred to pay his tuition at Pennsylvania State University rather than open the doors of FSU to an African American graduate student. In 1957 he completed his degree at Penn State, and in 1958 he became the first African American professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, where I grew up. There the ideal of integration was more often the reality of tokenism as I was frequently the only Black student in my class. Given this history, it is not surprising that I am now known as a “race relations expert.” I have been observing racial dynamics all of my life, and I have seen positive change. Today Bridgewater State College has its first president of color, and in 2004, I, a Black woman, will deliver a keynote speech at Florida State. Neither even was imaginable in 1954.
Now serving as the ninth president of Spelman College, the oldest historically Black college for women, I have a new lens through which to understand the meaning of Brown. Though it was not instant, the decision opened new doors of educational opportunity for Black students that initially challenged and ultimately strengthened Spelman College. Like many HBCUs, Spelman faced new competition for its students from those predominantly White institutions that had previously excluded them. However, increased competition spurred important improvements at Spelman, including enhanced faculty development, new resources for scholarships and expanded facilities — creating an environment that now attracts more than 4,400 talented young women competing for 525 spaces in our first-year class.
Fifty years after Brown, why are historically Black colleges like Spelman not only still relevant but the preferred choice for many talented Black students? As a psychologist whose scholarly focus has been racial identity development, I recognize that college choice is a reflection of identity — a statement about how you see yourself, who you are now and who you hope to become. Students are drawn to an environment where they see themselves reflected in the environment in powerful ways, places where they see themselves as central to the educational enterprise.
The importance of affirmation of identity in college choice cannot be underestimated. But indeed it often is. Though most college campuses are considerably more diverse today than they were in 1954, historically White institutions are still struggling to understand the ABCs of creating truly inclusive environments that will maximize the intellectual and leadership potential of all of their students. Those ABCs as I describe them are affirming identity, building community and cultivating leadership, three critical dimensions of effective learning environments.
Affirming identity refers to the idea that students need to see themselves reflected in the environment around them — in the curriculum, in the faculty and staff, and in the faces of their classmates — to avoid feelings of invisibility or marginality that can undermine student success. Building community highlights the importance of creating a sense of belonging to a larger, shared campus community. The goals of affirming identity and building community are often perceived as being in tension, but they are in fact complementary. Students who feel that their own needs for affirmation have been met are more willing and able to engage with others across lines of difference. Cultivating leadership refers to the fact that leadership in the 21st century requires not only the ability to think critically, and speak and write effectively but also demands the ability to interact effectively with others in a pluralistic context. The development of each of these abilities requires opportunities to practice.
Whether at an HBCU or predominantly White institution, we all must ask ourselves, “How do we create and sustain educational environments that affirm identity, build community, and cultivate leadership in a way that supports the learning of all students?” The young people we are educating will graduate on the edge of a new frontier, a society more diverse that ever before and one in which the need for high-level skills is the rule, rather than the exception. Though we are naturally inclined to teach the way we were taught, relying on the lessons of the past will not necessarily take us where we want to go. How will we get there? A few years ago I had a dream that illuminated for me the difficulty of the task we are undertaking. In the dream I was driving a car along a road, and all of a sudden the car went off the road and was on top of a pile of rocks. I said in surprise, “What happened to the road?” A voice answered, “There is no road.” When I awakened, it occurred to me that my dream held the perfect metaphor for what we as a society are trying to do.
Fifty years after Brown, our “road” is still under construction. Though some progress has been made, the road to racial equality is not complete. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested in her judicial opinion in the Michigan case that perhaps in 25 years affirmative action programs would no longer be needed or allowed. We will all have to intensify our building efforts if we expect to meet that construction deadline.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College in Atlanta and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations About Race. This article is excerpted from a longer version.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com