is an author and social commentator. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte
When students return to university next week, many will need to prepare for living and eating only with people of the same color. Whatever happened to the dream of a desegregated country?
Racial segregation is a really bad idea. So it is not surprising that advocates of identity politics are demanding that black-only dormitories should be established on American campuses.
The Washington Square News, the undergraduate students’ paper of New York University (NYU), recently reported that the university was willing to “help implement residential communities open solely to ‘Black identifying students with Black Residents Assistants.’” NYU aims to establish such a segregated residential floor by autumn 2021.
The institutionalization of segregation at NYU follows similar developments on other campuses. In many universities racial segregation of dormitories is euphemistically called ‘affinity housing’. Supporters of affinity housing claim that these dorms create a “comfortable” and “safe” environment for minority students. They frequently assert that the presence of white students makes minority students uncomfortable. In its petition for segregated housing, an organization called Black Violets stated that “too often in the classroom and in residential life, black students bear the brunt of educating their uninformed peers about racism.”
The triumph of the principle of segregation at NYU is only the most recent example of the adoption of this divisive outlook. A report published by the National Association of Scholars in April 2019, concluded that what it called ‘neo-segregation’ is a growing phenomenon on American campuses. They found that more than 80 higher education institutions have been complicit in hosting segregated dormitories.
The demand for a segregated campus life has been growing since 2015. And university administrators are increasingly more than happy to accommodate it. Of course, they rarely call segregation by its name. When they don’t use the term ‘affinity housing’ they adopt the phrase ‘themed housing’ or talk of ‘safe spaces’.
California State University in Los Angeles took exception to the claim made by critics that it offered segregated housing for black students. It described its scheme of residential segregation as a “new black living-learning community.” On its Housing Services page, it described it as an initiative designed to “enhance the residential experience for students who are part of or interested in issues of concern to the black community living on campus by offering the opportunity to connect with faculty and peers.” Whatever euphemisms this university chooses to describe its “new black living-learning community,” it is evident that its aim is not to enhance a common campus experience and culture.
The imperative of segregation extends beyond dormitories. Sadly, university authorities tend to condone even the voluntary segregation of their eating facilities. For example, Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University, claimed that it is understandable that black students eating in the cafeteria would not want white undergraduates to join them. “We all deserve safe spaces,” he wrote, and “black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace.” Schapiro’s apology for a segregated safe space is based on the proposition that everyone should be able to have access to a safe space where they are protected from being made uncomfortable by other kinds of people. How has it come to this?
Schapiro’s reference to the desirability of segregated safe spaces highlights one of the most important themes in the development of identity politics during the past decade. The advocacy of safe spaces has meshed with demands that minority cultures and lifestyles should have their own exclusive domain where they can cultivate their own identity without being made uneasy by the presence of people who are not like them.
Competing claims for safe spaces has become a focus of competition where groups contend that their well being depends on living with their own kind. The divisive potential of the safe space ideal was exposed in late 2015 and early 2016, when Afro-American university students on a number of US campuses raised demands for segregated safe spaces on campuses. For example, at Oberlin College, students demanded that “spaces throughout the Oberlin College campus be designated as a safe space for Africana identifying students.”
The meshing of the safe space movement with segregation has been wholeheartedly supported by PEN America. Four years ago, in a report, ‘And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion and Freedom of Speech at US Universities’, PEN rebranded the practice of self segregation as “voluntary safe spaces” and called on universities to set them up. According to PEN, these spaces “should be entered into voluntarily by students wishing to associate with a certain group.” Though voluntary segregation is preferable to an involuntary one, its effects are still pernicious on the conduct of public life.
If an organization like PEN America, which was set up to defend “free expression” supports “voluntary” segregation, it is not surprising that there are few obstacles that stand in the way of the institutionalization of racial and cultural segregation in the United States.
The advocacy of segregated safe spaces is the logical outcome of a movement that attaches such a fundamental significance to the validation of people’s identity. Supporters of identity politics often denounce their opponents as xenophobic or racist. In reality, identity politics is inherently divisive and is no less tolerant than old school white segregationists.
The cultivation of identity encourages the psychic distancing of people to the point some students demand to be allowed to share spaces with only those with whom they identify. That is really bad news for a democratic society.
As Martin Luther King pointed out in a speech in New York in 1956, during his long campaign to desegregate the education system and US society generally, “Segregation has always been evil, and only the misguided reactionary clothed in the thin garments of irrational emotionalism will seek to defend it. Segregation is both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable.”
Throughout history, individuals who regarded themselves as progressive were fervent opponents of any form of racial or cultural segregation. That so-called progressives today support ‘voluntary segregation’ or ‘affinity housing’ indicates just how far removed they are from the ideals that inspired abolitionists and supporters of civil rights throughout the centuries.
The divisive impulses that drive the politicization of identity is no less dangerous than their authoritarian equivalents in the past.