Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 2002/ 4 Teves, 5763
The soft bigotry of campus paternalism
Jim Crow is back, only he's supposed to be kinder, gentler and mellower. You might call him Jimmy Crow (or in some places, Jaime Crow). Whatever you call him, he's the new big man on campus. Administrators have freshened up the label, and their dorms are not segregated houses, but "ethnic theme houses." Nevertheless, these are living accommodations determined by race, the latest trend in the soft bigotry of campus paternalism.
At Stanford, these dorms require a glossary for identification. Muwekma-tah-ruk is Native American, Ujamaa is African-American and Casa Zapata is Chicano/Latino. The Asian-American house is called Okada, named for the author of a book about the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, when they were sent to live in ethnic-themed resettlement camps.
Stanford students and administrators have been mildly embarrassed - there may be hope yet - since a civil rights organization exposed them in a study entitled: "The Stigma of Inclusion: Racial Paternalism/Separatism in Higher Education." The New York Civil Rights Coalition reports that color-coded universities encourage a "balkanized campus environment" and that minority students at Stanford are "indoctrinated" into a separate track for "special treatment" that many of them did not ask for, or expect, when they applied for admission.
"From those who believe that theme dorms represent a divisive form of self-segregation, to those who see them as paternalistic attempts by universities to improve minority students' chances of success in college," the Stanford Daily reports, "the system has a wide range of detractors."
Descriptions of segregated theme dorms at other colleges could fill a primer on diversity doublespeak. Some of the new segregationists suggest that an ethic theme house is no different from clustering students in dancing, music, art, language or food. But "Chocolate City" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a black dorm, is not about brownies and chocolate fudge cake, but a dorm to promote black culture, identity and support for "our brotherhood."
The Latino Living Center at Cornell offers salsa and meringue, which may sound like dip and lemon pie, but they're the popular Latin dances. In between the fancy footwork, the Latino students discuss the future of immigration policy and the problems of gang warfare in the inner-city barrios. The University of Pennsylvania calls its segregated dorm the W.E.B. Dubois College House, named for the famous black sociologist, to promote African-American culture. There's even a hip-hop group. One resident likes the wide diversity based on skin color: "I was exposed to a real mixture - to Africans, African-Americans, and other black Americans like myself."
Stanford administrators say their multiethnic approach has evolved since the first black theme house was established in 1970. Thirty years ago the purpose was to provide an ethnic neighborhood away from the ethnic neighborhood. Today, the emphasis, according to Thom Massey, assistant dean of the graduate life office, is on the positive celebrations of African-American culture for whites as well as blacks.
Students who like such arrangements say they choose ethnic houses because they feel "safe" and appreciate a comfortable support system provided by their own kind that gives them time to adjust to the larger culture on campus. This sounds to those of us with long memories like making sure some people know their place.
The New York civil-rights report finds ethnic theme houses part of a larger disturbing "educational" problem. Their survey of colleges reveals a segregationist agenda of race and ethnicity permeating every facet of campus life - academic courses, counseling, remedial programs and socializing, all hiding behind clever euphemisms and pretty facades of diversity.
Ethnic houses actually encourage what they decry, by infantilizing students, pampering them in their ethnic insecurities, and creating a divisiveness through racial stereotyping. A Latino student gives away the insidiousness of this approach, describing how he found his blood roots at Amherst: "For me, there's more consciousness of my background as a Latino male," he says. "Before I came to Amherst, I wasn't thinking about race or class or gender or sexual orientation, I was just thinking about people wanting to learn."
All this, says the New York Civil Rights Coalition, is a giant step backward for the civil rights movement: " The purpose of higher education is to remove narrow constrictions of the mind, to extirpate prejudice, to remove barriers to the open pursuit of knowledge. Separatism in all of its forms, but especially when it is aided and abetted by college and university officials and resources, is a betrayal of that mission."
Shame on them.
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