Self-Segregated college dorms: the wrong step back

After Americans have struggled for decades to bring us all together, universities across the country are acquiescing in, even heartily endorsing, racial and ethnic separateness.

When the University of Oregon recruited Bobbie Robinson and Charles Williams as its first black athletes in 1926, they weren’t allowed to live in university dormitories. All students of color were required to rent housing off campus.

Charles Williams at the  University of Oregon

Charles Williams at the University of Oregon

It was a long struggle, but universities across the country eventually opened their dormitories to residents of all colors and cultures. How ironic that many universities have now turned back the clock by establishing separate housing by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and more.

It’s all being done under the guise of building cultural bonds, uniting people with shared values and strengthening identities. Separate but equal, say proponents.

Schools call the segregate spaces theme houses, program dorms or some other innocuous sounding name, but what they really are is a contrivance that do damage to all students, their schools and American ideals.

Much of today’s self-segregation had its origins in the turmoil of the 1960s.

In 1969, for example, at a meeting called by the Beloit College Afro-American Union, thirty-five black students presented 12 demands, including that sections of dorms be reserved for black students. Within days, a spineless administration acquiesced.

That same year, armed members of Cornell University’s Afro-American Society (AAS) occupied Willard Straight Hall to protest the school’s perceived racism. Following negotiations with Cornell officials, the AAS students emerged from the building carrying rifles and wearing bandoleers with cartridges. A picture of the armed students leaving the building ran on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

May 5, 1969 Newsweek cover

May 5, 1969 Newsweek cover

That led to the opening of Cornell’s Ujamaa Residential College in 1972, which “…celebrates the rich and diverse heritage of Black people…” Not stopping there, Cornell now has eight Program Houses, or “themed” residence halls, including a Latino Living Center and Akwe:kon, an American Indian house.

The spread of these self-segregated residential housing facilities has been explosive. U.C. Berkeley has self-segregated housing “Theme Programs” available for African-Americans, Asian Pacific Americans, Native Americans and Mexican Americans.

MIT has a community within a dorm called Chocolate City, “…a brotherhood of MIT students and alumni who identify with urban culture and share common backgrounds, interests, ethnicities, and/or experiences.”

At Brown University in Rhode Island there’s Hispanic House and Harambee House, which is “…focused on perpetuating a sense of community, academic excellence, and leadership for all people of African descent.”

Harambee is Swahili for ” pulling or working together.” But self-segregation isn’t pulling people together; it’s pushing them apart, capitulating to pressure and reinforcing separatism.

Some academics, perhaps eager for student approval, argue that faculty support for self-segregation is a good thing because it stimulates bonding. “We teachers have an opportunity to stand in solidarity with our students who call for programmed houses on the basis of politicized racial identities,” wrote Amie A. Macdonald, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY.

“…anyone concerned with the long-range goal of securing broad-based freedom and autonomy should be committed to the continued existence of racially defined communities on the grounds that different racial identities provide people with different experiences of the world,” Macdonald said. “The preservation of racially defined communities of meaning secures the continued diversity of interpretations of the social world, thereby providing a richer array of know/edges from which to construct social, political, aesthetic, spiritual, and scientific accounts of our experience.”

Except for the fact this is very professorial, it sounds suspiciously like something Alabama Governor George C. Wallace would have said in less flowery language to affirm “segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.”

Governor George Wallace giving his defiant inaugural address on Jan. 14, 1963

Governor George Wallace giving his defiant inaugural address on Jan. 14, 1963

That’s why many thoughtful people condemn the spread of self-segregation practices.

Even 20 years ago, Claire Fagin, then President of the University of Pennsylvania, expressed deep concern. “In general, what we are seeing is a much more divided population on our college campuses,” she said. “We are moving into a very, very hyphenated world: It’s Asian-American, African-American . . . it’s so contrary to everything I grew up with . . . when everyone fought to just be American. For many of us who stress pluralism, these are not easy times.”

Tamar Lewin, a New York Times reporter, has written about how a purposeful blending of interracial roommates can reduce prejudice. Studies at Ohio State and elsewhere have found that having a roommate of a different race can reduce prejudice, diversify friendships and even boost black students’ academic performance, he reported.

“Just having diversity in classrooms doesn’t do anything to increase interracial friendships,” said Claudia Buchmann, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State and an author of a study at Duke University. “But the intimacy of living together in residence halls, with no roommate, or a different-race roommate, does lead to more interracial friendships.”

Lawrence H. Summers when he was President of Harvard University, expressed identical sentiments.

“…the success of our alumni is critically dependent on the environment that we create for them while they are students,” Summers said. “Whether we are inclusive and welcoming – whether we create an environment that encourages students to learn not just from casebooks and in classrooms, but from other students who have had very different experiences than themselves – all of this plays a vital role in determining whether our students will have the skills and experiences needed to be effective leaders.”

Dividing everybody into categories and subcategories is not the way forward.

As John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement, said, “Now we have to create a sense that we are one community, one family. Really, we are the American family.”




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