NYU students petition for blacks-only housing, but are turned down by the University

August 25, 2020 • 10:30 am

On July 20, the NYU student newspaper The Washington Square News reported that black students at the University were calling for black-only housing (called “affinity housing” in some places and, if you want to be accurate but uncharitable, “segregated housing”). Click on the screenshot to read the article. I’ve been interested in this topic because race-based housing would have been unthinkable when I was in college—a violation of not only segregation laws but also of Dr. King’s famous dictum about judging people. Now, however, such housing is seen by minority students and many whites as not only legal, but as morally required, and I’ve been curious why.  The article below, and the petition (below that) give a few answers.

An excerpt from the article:

Soon after they met, Gallatin senior Brenah Johnson and her first-year roommate — who are both Black — noticed that their experience was different from that of their Black peers.

“We had each other as support, but our other Black friends did not,” Johnson said. “Our first instances of racism were second hand, hearing from our friends who had to change dorms because their first roommates were anti-Black.” During their time at NYU, both students came to believe that the university does not adequately provide for its Black students.

“There is nothing to protect us,” the CAS student said. “Literally no systems in place. What do you do when your professor is racist and wants to take it out on your grades? Microaggressions in classroom discussions?”

Johnson worked in housing as a Residential Assistant and noticed that the housing system did not meet the demands of Black students.

“As a former RA, we spoke a lot of language around being diverse and forming communities, but we never talked about its application and how different students may want to be included in different ways,” Johnson said. “Housing felt like the first place to make a tangible start.”

The explanation here seems to be that such housing offers support and respite for a group that is oppressed on campus. We learn more from the students’ petition at change.org (click on screenshot below), which as of this morning has been signed by 1,125 people:

The petition demands more than just exclusive housing:

We, members of the Black student body, demand that NYU implement Black student housing on campus in the vein of themed engagement floors across first-year and upperclassmen residence halls. These floors would serve to celebrate Black culture and build community among Black-identifying students. The conditions to support this proposal include:

  • Floors completely comprised of Black-identifying students with Black Resident Assistants
  • Black Programming and In-Hall Events, curated by the RA and the floor community
  • Required Bias and Diversity Training for ALL residents before entering NYU housing
  • Disciplinary Action for Discriminatory/Racist Behavior within residence halls
  • Creation of a Board of Student Leaders in Residential Life Focused on Tackling Issues of Diversity and Racism within Res Halls

Note that it’s entire floors that are to comprise black students. Some schools already allow you to choose your roommate, and in that case you can choose a roommate of the same race. But that’s not the same thing as entire floors declared off limits to anyone but blacks. From my read of the petition, NYU randomizes roommates for the freshman year, and they wind up as “diverse”, which I take to mean that this results in roommates of different races living together. I’m not sure how roommates are chosen in subsequent years, though the petition implies that they, too, are randomized.

One rationale for whole-floor “living communities” is that this benefits only “those who want to add POC (“people of color] to their life”. Another comment added to the petition is that some remarks made to black students were racist or “microaggressions”.

The main rationales in the petition are two (my numbering, words from petition)

1.) Like any themed engagement floor, residents would be selected through application. In the tradition of others, these themed engagement floors could partner with the Africana studies department or NYU’s Institute of African American Affairs.

Due to gentrification across New York, especially in Manhattan, black students rarely see themselves reflected on spaces close to campus. With the help of Black RAs and a situated budget, these residents would have the opportunity to host cultural events and venture outside our campus center to explore Black museums, Black-owned restaurants, and historic monuments.

2.) As one of the smallest racial populations on campus, we demand the option to choose a living community that represents and celebrates US. This is not an exclusionary demand, but rather a necessary accommodation considering the specific challenges Black students face at this university. We demand that NYU embrace this proposal and make space for our voices within Residential Life by building a board of student leaders focused on tackling issues of diversity and racism within residence halls.

This demand is certainly “exclusionary,” and to some extent I can see why: having some shared background, black students might feel more comfortable living with other black students. The counterarguments are that (as we did at William and Mary), having the school choose your roommates in the first year exposes you to people of very different backgrounds, and you learn a lot. Also, “engagement floors” seems divisive, for other groups, like Asians and Hispanics, could make the same arguments. (Whites could too, since we’re suppose to have a shared culture, but we don’t face oppression the way these students do, and thus don’t need whole floors of like-race people to provide “safe spaces”.) But entire floors rather than just a same-race roommate seems an excessive demand.

It seems to me that this whole issue could be settled not by devoting entire floors to people of a given race, but assigning roommates randomly the first year, and then in all subsequent years allowing students to choose their roommates, presumably by mutual agreement. But some people might object to that, too, saying that forced exposure to very different people throughout college is a salubrious thing. I think it’s good for one year, but going to class with people and living with them in a small space are different experiences.

At any rate, NYU rejected the idea in a statement issued yesterday (click on screenshot):

The statement:

“A story claiming that NYU is implementing ‘racial segregation in its dorms’ is false and misleading.

“Earlier in the summer, a group of Black students reached out to NYU’s Office of Housing and Residential Life and applied to establish an Exploration Floor around the themes of Black history and culture; NYU has about 30 themed Exploration Floors. During the course of the discussion about the application process–which is ongoing–the Housing Office staff made clear that all Exploration Floors must be open to applicants of all races and backgrounds.

“The University strongly supports the goals of diversity, and of creating an environment that is welcoming, supportive, and inclusive for students of color and students from marginalized communities. However, NYU does not have and will not create student housing that excludes any student based on race.”

The list of exploration floors show 27 of them catering to students of diverse interests, including social justice, food, STEM, and so on, but none are devoted to “Black history and culture” (there is one on “inequality and justice”).  It’s not clear from the announcement above whether NYU will move forward on that one.

If you feel the students’ request, at least with respect to all-black floors, is valid and worth doing, please say that in the comments and explain your answer. Although I’m pretty set against it, I’m willing to listen to arguments.

44 thoughts on “NYU students petition for blacks-only housing, but are turned down by the University

  1. I can’t help but think that the people promoting “affinity housing” are ignorant of US history. They certainly lack the “lived experience” of enforced segregated housing as that concept was employed during the pre-Civil Rights era.

      1. Yes Jeremy, you beat me to it. This ‘blacks-only’ (or ‘any race-only’, for that matter) housing has the foul stink of Apartheid.

    1. I think many of them are aware of it, they just only think it’s a problem when they’re the ones who are excluded from spaces, told to shut up and that they’re not welcome, told that their presence would be disruptive. When they’re the ones doing the excluding? Then it’s natural to want to be around your own kind, and a good thing and sometimes even necessary to cater to that desire, because those other people that aren’t your kind just ruin things.

  2. This call for self-segregation represents a repudiation of the ideals of Dr. King. These students have abandoned the idea that an integrated society is even possible. They have bought D’Angelo’s thesis that white American is so irredeemably racist that nothing can be done about it. In effect, what they envision is an American society where all groups have legally mandated rights so that the groups are separate but equal. This was a bad idea during the Jim Crow era and now as well, regardless of who proposes it and how it is implemented. Such a situation invariably creates social instability and unrest, eventually resulting in social collapse with unknown results. The country is facing a reckoning over race relations, but the self-segregation of ethnic or racial groups is not the solution.

    1. It must be pointed out, though, that this mindset is nothing new. There’s always been that strain of extreme self-segregation in minority groups in America (Marcus Garvey for one); some of it is positive, some not. This is not. And during the 1960s, for a number of reasons, not every black person looked to King as the gold standard and I think it’s quite unfortunate that King’s name and stature has come not just to dominate but to obliterate the ideological diversity of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

      1. Those two views have been bumping heads at least since W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington began having at it.

    2. Undoubtedly, I gave the impression that I was contradicting you. That was not my intent. King was the face of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, he’s its touchstone, and he was a titan when it came to catalyzing the movement and marshaling ordinary people to fight for his non-violent assault on the institution of segregation. Even other groups, including those with a separatist bent, and some who didn’t repudiate violence (such as Robert Williams’ group) owe a lot to the moment and the movement King led. So I wanted to make that clear. And while I’m at it, I want to point out that he didn’t jes’ grow like Topsy, either and Ghandi wasn’t his only mentor and muse; he owed much to other black Americans who came before him and also contemporaries (such as Bayard Rustin) who made his path possible. But he’s been deified and it’s become as if Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. Even I forget.

      I know you know all this but I want to put it out there for whomever might find it to be of note.

  3. I find strange that they talk about “Black-identifying students”, it’s somehow like talking about “self-identifying women” to discriminate at the entrance of women-only places. I don’t think they would allow a man self-identifying as a woman in women dormitories. So, they must have more specific criteria to determine if someone is sufficiently “black” to be accepted on these floors.

    I thus wonder if they planned to use the old racist criteria (skin melanin, shape of skulls and noses, etc.) or if they invented a new set?

      1. I recently read an article on hostility between “African-Americans” [defined as people who are descended from pre-Civil War slaves] and Blacks who are recent immigrants [or children of immigrants] from the Caribbean, Africa, Canada or Europe. African-Americans do not see these newcomers as part of the same group as themselves and resent them benefiting from Affirmative Action, scholarships, or other programs designed to help African-Americans. One commenter even used the term “appropriation” and insisted that simply having a lot of melanin does not make you part of the club. I remember the same arguments being used against Obama: “He isn’t Black! His ancestors didn’t have to ride on the back of the bus in Mississippi!”

        I suppose we’ll need one floor for Blacks from Africa, one for Blacks from Jamaica, one for Blacks from the US . . .

  4. The students’ demands would surely please Robin Diangelo given that she advocates for racial “affinity groups.” (That concept taken to its logical conclusion would also fracture into even more specific affinity groups based on the degree of POC blood a POC has, age, sex, gender, and so forth, ad absurdum. There could be a mulatto floor, a quadroon floor, an octoroon floor, and so forth; and then there are the POCs of other mixed non-white heritages. What to do with them? And who’d run the kitchens to make sure everyone was served ethnically appropriate food so there would be no culinary cultural appropriation?

    This is not idle speculation — here is a pamphlet advocating for precisely these kinds of caucuses as a “racial justice strategy” https://justleadwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Caucuses-as-a-Racial-Justice-Strategy-JustLead-WA.pdf

    These demands would also warm the cockles of the hearts of declared white supremacists who want to see America turned into an apartheid country.

    1. An informative link, Jenny Hanniver. It in turn linked to a site explaining all the evil features of “white supremacy culture” that need to be abolished. These included the following:

      • the belief that there is such a thing as being objective or ‘neutral’
      • the belief that emotions are inherently destructive, irrational, and should not
      play a role in decision-making or group process
      • invalidating people who show emotion
      • requiring people to think in a linear (logical) fashion and ignoring or
      invalidating those who think in other ways
      • impatience with any thinking that does not appear ‘logical’”

    2. That reminds me of one question I have sometimes puzzled over but not really dared to ask: how is it that just one POC ancestor, even three or four generations ago, automatically makes an individual a POC himself or herself? I am one-eighth Scots, but I would not want anyone else defining me as Scottish on that account. It is very sad that for some people the micro- surface differences between individuals are more important than what they have in common. The way of the world, I guess.

      1. “how is it that just one POC ancestor, even three or four generations ago, automatically makes an individual a POC himself or herself?”

        This is a legacy of antebellum America’s “one drop” rule, where even slight African ancestry was enough to mark a person as non-white and worthy of discrimination or enslavement. Even today Americans maintain a binary attitude to race–you must either be one or the other. If we began thinking of people as mixed and members of multiple races, we would be a less neurotic nation.

  5. I see nothing wrong with picking room mates but that’s about it. I believe we had that choice in the college I attended.

    I recall in the service (Air Force) during basic training and tech schools you had no choice. I’m speaking of enlisted, not sure about officers. After completion of tech school or whatever, you got to choose roommate. The separation in housing in the military is enlisted vs. officer. Officers get better housing and higher ranks get better housing than lower ranks. I have seen as an example: In an officers building, the first 6 floors are lower ranks and 7-9th floors for flag officers. I don’t think the apartments were any better, just higher up.

    1. So the higher ranks had to climb more stairs when the elevetors went down, or if there weren’t any in the first place. Seems fair and exemplary to me. 😉

  6. Too often in the classroom and in residential life, black students bear the brunt of educating their uninformed peers about racism. This assumed responsibility is exhausting and undoubtedly unfair to NYU’s black community.

    I’d imagine it’s pretty exhausting for their roommates, too.

    As for change.org petitions, since these are open to anyone, they are hardly an accurate way to assess campus opinion.

    1. I cannot begin to imagine the hell on earth that would be life with a roommate who feels a need to proselytize to me about their religion.
      I don’t think it makes much of a difference whether their religion is based on a deity, a diet, or an obsession with race.

  7. seems anti-american, and all too american.

    both due to divisiveness.

    are there data on this? i’m aware of singapore social housing policy being credited with reducing inequality. seems designed to increase tribalism.

    if it’s country music on the white floors, i’m identifying with my 1% nigerian ancestor.

  8. Ummmm…just how separate do people expect and want to be?

    I find myself siding for a good part with the Black students. But I’m not entirely clear just how extensive this separation is to be.

    When I was living in the Ithaca area there was a bunch of us women who would spend Saturday morning in women-only space. It was a good thing. Women only space is different from mixed space.

    If a guy were to come in and join us it would change the nature of the energy and interactions. The focus would shift, things would be different.

    And I would expect that men often would like to spend time in men only space, too. My son-in-law goes to hunting camp with the other guys, and it’s good for him. Not that he catches much of anything, but it does him good to be able to spend that time with only men.

    Of course I’m talking about Saturday mornings and a few days out in the woods, not exclusive living arrangements.

    I’d think Black students would feel a need for Black-only space to one extent or another, and I see nothing wrong with that.

    Rather, I don’t know how much is too much and would be counterproductive.

    I have yet to read White Fragility, mainly because I do NOT want to spend the money on a book which I have the bad feeling will turn out to rather awful from what I’ve heard (which is all the more reason for me to read it and see for myself rather than just going on what I hear – and of course I’m waiting for Jerry to give us a book report). I don’t know what all would be involved in this Black-only space and whether DiAngelo-type thinking is involved.

    So I’m undecided for the time being. Need more information.

    1. I have these same mixed feelings, and I agree there are useful qualities about some exclusive time and space at least for some people.

      I think a difference here is that you and your relative created these exclusive spaces for yourselves for your own benefit. The NYU students could do similar things for themselves. But instead the NYU students are asking the university to create these spaces for them, maintain them, and enforce the exclusionary rules.

      One sees this often among progressives: the appeal to an authority or administrative office or court to create and administer something or solve some apparent problem that a group of people could create or run or solve for themselves.

    2. I think the sticking point is the school does not want a dorm hall that excludes the presence of some students based on race. I presume the NYU Black Student Union can reserve/rent a room on campus if they want to meet for a couple hours a week (or even have a daily study and discussion meeting – availability allowing).

      But, as I said below, I personally don’t have a problem with the theme being used as the basis for an Exploration hall, so long as the housing is open to all applicants.

  9. There is a great irony in that these students, almost all of whom we would classify as Gen Z, are among the group who make fun of “Karen”, because demands like this typify that exact mindset and what she is mocked for: “Can I speak to the manager/HR?” “No, I don’t care what your policy and rules are, I am your customer and I demand this.” “I will tell everyone I know and spread this wide to make sure everyone knows about you and how wrong and bad you are.” They only make fun of her as “a middle aged white lady with a bad haircut with an outdated name” because they’ve completely internalized “Karen” norms and seek to distance themselves from it.

    Rather than talking things out with people they don’t know who may not share their background or views, experiencing some discomfort, and come to a mostly mutual settlement within the generally applicable rules of society, the students turn to the highest levels of authority and make demands for themselves, often to the detriment of others in large part because they don’t even care to consider their interests, without any regard or respect for what even the most bedrock rules, norms, and traditions are within the university, namely that segregation is not a good or even permissible thing.

  10. When these kids get out of school one day, will they be asking the employer for separate work areas for their people. Separate bathrooms? Like the 1950s.

  11. Perhaps I missed something, but amongst all these demands there seemed to be a recognition that ‘racist roommates’ were just a fact of life. Isn’t that the actual problem that needs to be addressed? With a high confidence that racism will not be tolerated, then the ‘diverse’ part of random allocation seems to be self evidently a good idea.
    If on the other hand, racism is tolerated, or not dealt with, then of course one would want to live somewhere racists wouldn’t be living.

    1. Given that “racist” now includes, especially amongst younger people, all variety of microaggressions and often widely held political views, I don’t think this tells us too much, as I very much doubt white NYU students, by and large very liberal, are donning Klan hoods and yelling assorted racial slurs at their black roommates. If you attribute disagreements or differences between you and your roommate to your roommate being a racist unless your roommate is the same race as you, then your problem isn’t one a university can resolve fairly for all its students. Unless, that is, your university takes the DiAngelo approach: the white person is wrong, the black person is right.

      The best approach is to encourage students to pick roommates before the semester begins, which shouldn’t be hard at all with social media. The ones who really care about the race of their roommates can pursue that then.

  12. If the concept of college is to broaden and expose students to new experiences, cultures, etc…sending them off to live in color-coded ”bubbles” is counter-productive, isn’t it?

    How will anyone ever learn anything about other tribal groups without exposure?

    Having a club or study group made up of like-toned students is one thing. Restricting residences is quite another.

  13. I do see a difference between forced segregation and voluntary segregation. And freedom of intimate association is a First Amendment right. Of course, NYU has no obligation to provide such an option. Segregationists are free to find off campus housing that satisfies their desires.

    If one is to adopt the freedom of association option, the challenge is to prevent voluntary segregation from being an instrument of oppression. I do not see that “black floors”, or even “white floors”, as necessarily oppressive, as long as integrated floors are available, especially the most desirable ones. Personally, I would find such segregation quite distasteful, but then again that is part of living in a free society. We don’t have to like the preferences of others, just to tolerate them, as long as they do not oppress anyone.

  14. I’m going to go against the grain here a bit.

    Although I too am compelled to reject these Demands, can’t people spare a minute to understand where they are coming from? I am a privileged white male who has never experienced the constant feeling of being a kind of ‘outsider’ because of the color of my skin. Black people regularly describe how they know they are being noticed by the white people all around them. They pretty much all describe how they are followed in stores and experience both covert and overt racism and discrimination. Their status is constantly leveled at them all. the. time.

    I can see where some would just want to have a place where they can just, you know, relax.

    1. Sure, I think that’s entirely understandable, and I always understood that to be the purpose of a black student union or social center on campus (of which I approve completely).

      But I think segregated living facilities are something else entirely, and a grievous mistake.

    2. I can certainly understand where they’re coming from. I would definitely not have wanted my roommate chosen for me through all four years of college (like Jerry, I got assigned a roommate first year, then the next three years got to choose).

      If the students wanted to protest THAT bit of NYU policy, I’d be fully behind their protest.

  15. The thing that bothers me most about such things is the way they are presented as “demands”. What happened to proposing an idea for consideration (which is all you can ever really do, unless you’re threatening violence, anyway)? The gall involved in making such “demands” upon others demonstrates just how privileged and coddled such students are used to being, even in spite of the very real discrimination they surely do experience.

    I hate bigotry of all kinds, and humans all seem to be so prone to it, and embrace it with such self-righteousness. Thank goodness I’m not a human; they’re disgusting creatures. 😉

    1. Talking of microaggressions…

      BBC Radio 4 had a programme about “code-switching” earlier this evening, and how tired black people are of having to change their speech and cultural references to advance in their professions.

      As it happens, I only exist because my white working-class parents met at a private elocution class in their hometown in the midlands in the 1950s; their parents thought that learning “to speak proper” was the route to success for their offspring. When my mother won a scholarship to a nearby school primarily attended by rich girls, she was humiliated in front of the whole class by a teacher because she wrote “Mam” instead of “Mummy” in the Mother’s Day card she had to write; inevitably her “mam” mocked her for getting “ideas above her station” when she handed over the amended card.

      Dad left school at 14 to work at the local coal mines, although he dreamed of being an actor. Years (and several broken ribs) later, he eventually joined the RSC.

      Ironically, thanks to my parents’ elocution lessons I had to tone down my own “posh” accent to fit in at school.

      The embarrassment of class-based social faux pas has a long history, at least in the UK. So the idea that code-switching is unique to people of colo(u)r is certainly not the case. But I’m a white,50-something-year-old, straight, cis-gendered male, so “OK Boomer!” is probably all I should expect for pointing it out.

        1. What people don’t seem to understand is that White people also have to adjust their speech in order to advance. White people are not born speaking standard English, which has subtle rules that are not obvious until they are pointed out. For instance, White people will use double negatives, say “Me and him went there,” use “I got” for “I have,” say “it don’t” and so on, unless they are taught not to. [I remember my mother explaining most of these to me when I was little.] I know plenty of White people, including my relatives, who talk this way.

          The fact is that you will be expected to talk a certain way, just as you are expected to dress a certain way and have certain manners [e.g. don’t eat with your mouth open] if you expect to advance. This is true regardless of your race.

          1. Absolutely, and there’s also a reverse effect where in some situations you adjust your language in the opposite direction.

  16. This is certainly the direction in which things are going on elite college campuses, and I predict that in 10 years most of the college housing at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, USC, Stanford, Columbia, Chicago, etc. will be segregated. The only way to stop this nonsense on any particular campus is for the administration to stop soliciting and paying attention to these demands and to have the courage to be thus called “racist.” University administrators (and faculty) being the pusillaminous virtue-signalers that they are, that kind of resistance to neo-segregation ain’t gonna happen. Welcome to 21st century academe.

  17. A request for self-segregation by Black Students, let’s see:

    1.) Freedom of Association. People should have the freedom to choose the people they want to associate with, especially in an intimate living situation such as a dormitory.

    2.) Under-represented minority. As an under-represented minority in an unfamiliar environment, facing challenges of young adulthood combined with an environment that may seem hostile, it would be easier to make friends and form bonds of solidarity with students of your own background and race. This could be viewed compensatory for the extra challenges and burdens faced by minorities.

    3.) Is segregation per se bad? The problem of segregation is generally framed as the impact on the people excluded. If Jews are excluded from golf clubs where many opportunities are present, it would harm Jews economically, as well as perhaps a dignitary harm. If Blacks were excluded from a medical school, same deal. Its hard to see what actual harm is incurred by a non-Black student who can’t live in the dorm with Black students.

    For the contrary view, first comes difference, then comes separation, then comes attitudes of supremacy. Making one dorm more racially or ethnically homogeneous has the same effect on other dorms, and is not constructive in broadening minds or training people how to relate to people with different backgrounds.

  18. The list of exploration floors show 27 of them catering to students of diverse interests, including social justice, food, STEM, and so on, but none are devoted to “Black history and culture”

    There are two social justice ones, though, plus a French one and an International one, and one for 1st gen Americans. I really don’t a problem with a ‘black history and culture’ floor, because thematically it’s not really any more restrictive than several of the others. So long as any student could apply to live there, why not? You don’t have to have dark skin to appreciate black history and culture or want to immerse yourself in it for a year.

Leave a Reply