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Stirring discussions of race and education

Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation, By Beverly Daniel Tatum, Beacon, 147 pp., $22.95

Born in 1954, the year the US Supreme Court issued its landmark school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Beverly Daniel Tatum sees our nation in steady retreat from Brown’s legacy of equal educational opportunity for all. Her provocative and important book consists of four research-rich, concisely written essays on race and education originally delivered at Simmons College, including examinations of the ‘‘resegregation of our schools,’’ the need for educational curricula and staff that respect the diverse communities they serve, the challenges of interracial friendships, and the inherent racism of standardized testing.

Tatum's first essay on school resegregation is straightforwardly powerful in its assertion that state and federal courts have worked quietly and consistently to undermine the letter and spirit of Brown. Tatum shows how housing patterns in cities such as Boston have created a landscape of de facto segregation that gets reflected in increasingly segregated schools. Attempts to work around these housing patterns and create larger school districts encompassing both urban areas and predominantly white suburbs have been struck down by the courts. The author cites the example of Detroit, whose plan to include suburban schools in its desegregation efforts was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1974.

Tatum does a fine job explaining white flight from urban schools (in 1970, 59,000 white students were enrolled in the Boston public schools; by 2000, only 9,300 were enrolled) and the impact this has had in diminishing the overall educational experience. While the statistics are sobering, she spends little time discussing the larger political backlash against desegregation and civil rights in general. This backlash, a feeling that the nation had gone too far in pursuing a civil rights agenda, has been a constant, dominating theme in American politics from Richard Nixon down to George W. Bush.

The book's second essay is a historical argument tracing the anti-immigrant, racist roots of standardized testing in the United States. The early proponents of such testing, Tatum persuasively shows, were wedded to a philosophy "inherently rooted in the racism of the eugenics movement" and wanted to use testing to limit opportunities for incoming immigrant groups as a way of maintaining American purity.

Tatum cites recent research that suggests intelligence isn't a single characteristic but an ability to adapt well to different environments. She also shows how standardized testing promotes stereotypes and can work to inhibit intellectual development. Finally, Tatum offers practical suggestions for educators to subvert damaging stereotypes (i.e., "avoid overpraising for mediocre work").

In her insightful essay on interracial friendships, the author asserts that such relationships succeed only when race is openly placed on the table for discussion. She uses an example from her own life, in which both parties felt free to raise the often-difficult issue of race. Tatum learns from her friend " Andrea " too, especially about the presence of homophobia in the black church.

In her final essay, Tatum examines higher education and how it can better serve an increasingly diverse society. She includes discussions about reforms at Spelman College , in Atlanta, where she is president . What Tatum seeks to do above all is trigger sometimes - challenging discussions about race, and infuse those discussions with a reality-based focus on how race affects us all. Her latest book does that beautifully, asking tough questions , and patiently, inclusively seeking answers.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Quincy.