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Youth Today: The Black Table

By Karen Pittman, May 1998

Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? This question was the theme of a paper I wrote 25 years ago for a psych class at Oberlin College — the first white college to admit blacks. It was a question I was asked frequently, as one who was not always, or even often at the “black” table. It was one of my daughter’s key queries when she came home on her first break from Oberlin three years ago, and the theme of a talk I just gave to the prospective students of color being courted by my alma mater. It is also the title of a recent book, written by a Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a black female psychologist, teacher, trainer and advocate who happens to be my cousin. Clearly this is a longstanding question in my family. But it is not just my family.

The president has taken on racism as an issue. The National Research Council’s newly created Forum on Adolescence has posed the formation of intergroup relationships one of several topics worth exploring. TV talk shows investigate the extremes: Hate crimes and interracial dating. But this particular question — these 11 words — act as a concave lens, focusing all the conflicted feelings Americans have about race, racism, racial identity and race relations in one place. Why? Because the black or Latino table suggests that the melting pot isn’t working because some young people of color don’t want it to.

This country is straining under rising racial tension. State and local courts are in the midst of dismantling school desegregation orders. Busing has been quietly declared a failure, even among liberals. Affirmative action has been challenged and contained. The United States is approaching a 21st Century in which we will become a “majority minority” country with virtually no policy tools for ensuring that people of color get in the door, and few practical tools for understanding how to maximize or even interpret their presence once inside.

When the “tables” and “heritage houses” begin to fade in the near future as the numbers of African Americans and Hispanics dwindle on many campuses, their former existence (never understood) will be used to justify resegregation. Students of color didn’t really want to be on these campuses anyhow, some will say; it was just the scholarships.

But we youth workers should know better. We should know what Dr. Tatum documents: The table immersion in one’s culture is a critical phase of identity development, one that young people of color hit at different ages and with differing levels of intensity depending upon their experiences. We should know that some young people are slow to come to the table, that others are slow to leave. We should know how to help.

Do we? If we do, we have not stepped forward to acknowledge the expertise and take on the task. I fear that we are as conflicted as the rest of the country.

There is an uncomfortable silence among organizations and programs that achieve single racial or ethnic groups by design and those that do so by happenstance of neighborhood demographics. There is a more comfortable but no more vocal relationship between those that actively recruit to promote intergroup relationships and those that simply have mixed clientele. Rarely have I heard open discussion about how these programs and organizations should come together. (Should more Rites of Passage or Boys to Men programs be offered in YMCAs, PALs, Boys and Girls Clubs? Who selects and trains the staff?)

If we are serious about our mission — helping young people become fully prepared — then building racial and ethnic identity and multicultural skills should be an explicit goal that youth workers and youth serving organizations publicly embrace; one that is addressed aggressively through their outreach, programming, expectation and community connections. We must be forcefully and visibly in the developing picture of race and ethnic relations in this country — identifying challenges, offering solutions, and explaining why the tables are needed, while helping young people move beyond them.
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Pittman, K. (1998, May). "The Black Table." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
May 1, 1998
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