African-American students are now fighting to regain what their forefathers sought to abolish: segregation. University of Wisconsin students are demanding free tuition and special housing for blacks only. Safe spaces reserved for students of colour to gather have been requested by students at the University of Michigan. These students are choosing exclusion, but is this a step in the right direction? Or have we unknowingly reverted to a darker time in history?
The students’ behaviour doesn’t stop there. The University of Missouri held a protest in the shooting and death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, but only coloured students were invited. What is more outrageous is that campus authorities are becoming much more compliant. Just last year, separate housing for black students was offered by California State University, Los Angeles. Several other colleges offer students the same arrangement including the University of Connecticut, the University of California, Davis and the University of California, Berkeley.
And for the first time ever, Harvard University held a commencement ceremony this year for black graduate students. According to the New York Times, racially separated ceremonies are becoming much more common and openly accepted by universities.
Following in their footsteps, the University of Toronto will host its first-ever black graduation ceremony this June. The ceremony will include 100 graduates from all three campuses in downtown Toronto, Scarborough and Mississauga who have completed undergraduate, Master’s or PhD programs. Kelly Hannah-Moffat, vice-president of human resources and equity at U of T says the school immediately jumped on board and contributed funding. “[The event sends the message] that University of Toronto is a place for Black students to come and study at the undergraduate level and the graduate level and potentially as post-docs, (which) creates a pipeline for faculty and staff,” says Hannah-Moffat.
Is segregation the answer to the problems of African-American students?
The timing of these events is ironic. June 12 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case wherein the Supreme Court ruled states could not prohibit marriages based on race. In another case, Lloyd Lionel Gaines, filed a lawsuit in 1938 against the University of Mississippi School of Law for denying his application because he was black. Mississippi went on to establish a separate law school for people of colour in 1939—a huge milestone for incorporating higher education. Between Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, massive riots ensued over African-American student and veteran, James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi. Mississippi Governor, Ross Barnett initially prevented Meredith from entering the school’s campus but on Oct. 1, Meredith became the very first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. As a safety precaution, former U.S. President Kennedy ordered U.S. marshals to Mississippi to escort Meredith to his classes on campus.
There are some institutions who are not in favour of this divisiveness. In 2015 and 2016, students from Oberlin College created a 14-page list of demands requesting “spaces throughout the Oberlin College campus be designated as a safe space for Africana identifying students.” The college president denied their request saying that, “[the list] explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement.”
Ultimately, these students are entitled to their feelings and opinions, but they are missing the real issue. Embracing one’s culture and joining student organizations to reflect that is not a problem. But if everyone chooses to isolate themselves, it contradicts the very foundation of a tolerant and liberal academic institution. One of the fundamental parts of being a student is learning to integrate with students of diverse backgrounds. Segregating yourself from the rest of the student body entirely, and refusing to interact with others based on race alone can only do more harm than good in the end.
Aileen Ormoc | The Edge Blog