Atlantic Monthly reports that the University of Connecticut has opened a dorm specifically for black men. At a community college outside Chicago courses are being offered that are limited to only black students. In California, at Pitzer College, conflict has erupted over the issue of black students advertising for roommates stating that only people of color were welcome to apply. Are these efforts evidence of colleges and universities doing what is necessary to meet the needs of black students, or are they a new form of segregation? The answer depends upon who you ask. Supporters of the separate courses and living accommodations say that they’re necessary to create a safe environment and supportive environment for black students. Critics say that, regardless of the motives, separate classes and accommodations are a step backwards and a revival of the segregation that it took our nation so long to outlaw.
Legally, these programs raise what I see to be interesting and challenging questions. Courts view classification based upon race as suspect and subject to strict scrutiny review. Generally, you have to have a compelling interest and a narrowly tailored intervention when making any kind of a race based classification where any form of state action or commerce is involved. I suspect that a single race dorm may not pass constitutional muster with the Courts regardless of the justification. However, specialized programs designed to promote academic success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds may be an easier sell.
Is the idea of a non-white dorm for the purpose of creating a safe space for students of color completely ridiculous? As a white male it is very tempting for me to say “absolutely”. Honestly, I find the idea that someone might want a safe space away from me to be somewhat offensive. Additionally, I am certain that an attempt to create a white’s only dorm would be universally condemned, a condemnation that I would fully support. But when you think about it, maybe it’s not so ridiculous. Certainly, we have a long tradition of single gender dorms. Sober dorms are becoming popular on campuses as more young people find themselves struggling with substance abuse problems. Some campuses have kosher dorms or kosher dining halls. We have entire institutions that cater to a single gender, or students from a specific religious background.
One issue that comes up for me as I think about these issues is the difference between programs that are directed towards the needs of students coming from diverse backgrounds, and those that exclude or limit participation in those programs based upon definitions of race or ethnicity. For instance, a university can have a kosher dining hall that is open to all. A school can offer classes in Latino history or issues that are open to all. A school can have a program to promote success of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, which can include white students from economically deprived communities. A dormitory for a specific race, while I understand that desire for a “safe space”, seems to me to be a step backward and leaves me questioning whether or not the needs of students of color can be met in a way that doesn’t take us back to the era of segregation.
Our nation had a century-long unsuccessful experience with separate but equal. Time and time again our Courts and other branches of our government tried to make segregation work based upon the premise that somehow you can make separate equal if you just tweak right. It was only after failing time and time again that our Courts gave up and declared that separate could never be equal. Of course, there is another possibility that may exist. While it may be true that separate can never be equal, if proponents of segregated housing and classes are correct, then integration may not be equal either.
Lastly, one has to recall that one of the fundamental purposes and values of a college education is exposure to the larger world and a challenging of one’s beliefs and perspectives on the world. Is this purpose and value lost when we deliberately create an environment that allows students to avoid people and ideas that make them uncomfortable? Perhaps, more importantly, do safe spaces become places where students reinforce each other’s prejudices. Consider the report in the Washington Post where a Jewish student of color attended one campus conference that purported to be a “safe space” and found herself confronted with holocaust denial and anti-Semitism that sent her running from the event in tears.
Frankly, I can’t see how creating segregated spaces promotes tolerance and acceptance among students. Instead, I can see it working reinforce the divisions that separate individuals and groups. If this is the case, I have serious doubt that the students will emerge from these schools with the skills needed to survive in the increasingly pluralistic world they will soon graduate into.