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):
“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.