Politics & Policy

Dorm Segregation in 2016: The UConn Con

UConn promotional video for the ScHOLA²RS House program (via YouTube)
Black separatism in higher education is a kind of racialism that was outlawed decades ago.

Segregation is back. These past few weeks have seen controversy over black-student housing ads for roommates directed to “people of color” only, and over colleges and a law school that created separate class sections restricted for black students.

What is going on? It appears, alas, that public universities have formally reintroduced and made fashionable racial segregation, in the guise of creating safe spaces for “their” minority students — to endorse, fund, and foster black separatism in higher education. And that’s what the University of Connecticut has instituted with its plans to open a dormitory on its Storrs campus, where black male students will be clustered and separated from their peers of other skin colors.

But the last thing that campuses should be doing these days is encouraging racial isolation and stereotyping, along with a sense of grievance and a victim mentality. All that is certain to make race relations at our universities worse, not better.

The claim, according to University of Connecticut officials and documents obtained by us through a freedom-of-information request, is that this housing segregation will help address the lower graduation rates of its black-male students — lower as compared with male students of other colors and with women. But the social science here is iffy and laden with the paternalism, doubletalk, and the soft bigotry of low expectations whereby black men are burdened and labeled as being “at risk.”

UConn boasts that this “choice” of housing is precisely what its black-male students need and want. If so, the decades-old lament of social psychologist Kenneth B. Clark has come full circle: He observed that white racism would have gained its greatest triumph had it been able in the 1950s and 1960s “to persuade its black victims that segregation was not only acceptable but desirable in itself, and that the justification for this separatism was color alone.” Clark’s research on the effects of Jim Crow segregation was prominently cited in the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down segregation on the ground that separate public schools are “inherently unequal.”

Nonetheless, UConn sought and got a grant from a private educational foundation to fund the “special” dorm. Only after criticism from us and a few others, including two members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, did UConn change its public rhetoric — explaining that the dorm would be “open” to any students who identified with the African-American male experience. But there’s no doubt that racial classifications will be used and racial segregation encouraged.

Not only is this bad policy, but it’s legally dubious as well. There’s Brown v. Board of Education, of course, and the Supreme Court has put constraints on the use of racial classifications in higher education in its two rulings in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case challenging the use of racial preferences in university admissions. So it makes no sense at all for UConn to embark on this treacherous new enterprise in the meantime. 

And where are the traditional civil-rights groups that fancy themselves to be minorities’ advocates? Once upon a time, they vehemently opposed racial separatism in all its guises.

What’s more, it’s hard to imagine what legal justification for the plan the university can plausibly offer. As noted, the origin of the program was as a means to address the (lower) graduation rates of black men. But most black men at the university do graduate, and plenty of women and non-blacks do not. So why should the non-graduation problem be addressed in a sex- and race-based way? This is not a “narrowly tailored” use of race and sex, as Fisher I and II demanded, and on this point the university will be given “no deference.”

As the Supreme Court also cautioned in Fisher I, each student is to be “evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant’s race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application.” But who can doubt that this is precisely what the University of Connecticut is doing? 

UConn can’t deny what it’s doing, so its officials have clammed up. And Connecticut’s governor and UConn’s trustees refuse to intercede or even speak.

And where are the traditional civil-rights groups, such as the NAACP and the ACLU, that fancy themselves to be minorities’ advocates? Once upon a time, they vehemently opposed racial separatism in all its guises. But now they mostly tout black separatism as a viable remedy to purported white racism on campus, providing beleaguered black males “protection” and “safe” spaces — that is, spaces apart from whites and Asians and Hispanics. This surrender to racialism is a wanton betrayal of the once inviolate principles of equal access and treatment without regard to skin color.

As students head back to school, they mustn’t be directed to racially designated doors on campus or assigned to “black” dorms. That kind of racialism was outlawed long ago. It’s a lesson we thought was permanently learned, and educators ought to know better than to categorize and separate individuals on the flimsy basis of skin color.

— Michael Meyers is president of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity.


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