Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

On college campuses, more minority students want a home of their own

October 3, 1993

By JONATHAN TILOVE

Newhouse News Service 

ITHACA, N.Y. – Cornell University freshman Donell Hicks is no black separatist.

The first black Student Council president of his Dover, Del., high school, Hicks was just elected one of two representatives of a freshman class that is less than 5 percent black. His campaign promises were modest and mostly food-related.

“I can get along with anybody, just about,” said the 18-year-old government and economics major. Asked to name a political role model, he mentions former Delaware Lt. Gov. Dale Wolf, a white Republican with a Ph.D. in weed control. “We have to define ourselves as people and not as a race,” Hicks said.

And yet, when the time came to choose a place to live, Hicks picked Ujamaa – or “Oodge” as he calls it with familial affection – a low-rise dorm devoted to the study of black and Third World cultures. While it is open to anyone, most of Ujamaa’s 140 residents are black.

Hicks’ pick is typical of a growing desire of minorities at colleges and universities across the country for homes of their own, a desire at once unsettling to many liberals and objectionable to many conservatives.

Three decades after the demise of legal segregation, there appears to be an increasing predilection on the part of college students of various backgrounds to live, hang out and identify with others of the same background.

Perhaps it was ever thus, but now more than ever there is a desire on the part of students to gain official college sanction for their separatism. While black “theme” houses on campus have become commonplace since the raging ’60s, the thematic possibilities have grown in recent years.

The University of California at Berkeley added Asian and Hispanic theme floors in a new dorm last year.

Stanford University has black, Asian, American Indian and Hispanic dorms, though it requires that half of the residents not be of the dorm’s thematic race or ethnicity. Cornell’s 3-year-old American Indian house, Akwe:kon (it means “all of us” in Mohawk and is pronounced “A-Gway-Go) has a similar limit.

Oberlin College in Ohio has black, Jewish and Asian houses, not to mention a Third World Co-op. Wesleyan University in Connecticut has approved a “queer positive” house, joining schools like Rutgers University and the University of Massachusetts that already make special housing accommodations for gay and lesbian students.

The rhetoric of this new separatism speaks of solidarity and sustenance for those storm-tossed by the great white (and/or straight) wave of mainstream college life. But this self-segregation has its doubters and enemies.

It is a source of squirming consternation for old-school liberals, who see a heart-breaking repudiation of America’s hard-won but always precarious integrationist ethic.

It is cause for the sympathetic concern of those who worry that these ethnic and racial “theme houses” can all too easily devolve into ghettos of self-pity and estrangement.

It is the object of contempt of conservatives who see these ethnic enclaves as radical redoubts in which minorities are brainwashed into thinking of themselves not as Americans but as America’s victims.

And it is the subject of quite a few mixed signals on the part of college administrators.

It was in Ithaca, far above Cayuga’s waters, that the swirling currents of thought about theme housing came to a head of sorts last spring when Frank H.T. Rhodes, Cornell’s president since 1977, did something that college presidents have not been wont to do on this issue. He said, “No.”

The British-born Rhodes vetoed a plan, overwhelmingly approved by the student assembly, to set aside 60 dormitory spaces for a gay-lesbian-bisexual living and learning unit.

“I have the deepest reservations about the increasing tendency within the campus to define ourselves in terms of groups or factions,” Rhodes explained in his veto message. “I would express this same view if presented with requests for similar living units from other racial, religious, ethnic or special interest groups.

Or as President King of Doonesbury’s Walden University put it last week when confronted with student demands for separate drinking fountains, “I didn’t spend years in the civil rights movement to preside over resegregation!”

But as he, Rhodes and other presidents have discovered, it is easier said than done.

“Most of these theme houses and dormitories were created in response to political demands and the perceived need to keep the peace,” said John Bunzel, a former president of San Jose State University who is now at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “Once you go down this trail, it’s very difficult to make any changes.”

At Cornell, for example, Ujamaa was a residual outcome of the armed occupation of Willard Straight Hall, the school’s student union, by black students back in 1969.

But, in the years since, the university has reinforced Ujamaa’s legitimacy as well as the broader tendency of black and other non-white students to live on Cornell’s North Campus – where Ujamaa is located – rather than Cornell’s much whiter West Campus.

For example, minority students like Donell Hicks are invited to Cornell for a pre-freshman summer session during which they all live in or near Ujamaa.

Larry Palmer, Cornell’s vice president for academic programs and campus affairs, believes that Cornell should be seeking black students who want a fully integrated college experience, not comfort.

But, Palmer, who is black, says things won’t change quickly. “We didn’t get this way overnight.”

When a housing task force last year recommended limiting freshman housing choices to allow for greater integration of the campus, they ran into a brick wall of student opposition and backed off.

“They think, ‘Let’s desegregate the campus and everybody’s going to live happily ever after,’ ” said Carla Roland, shaking her head.

Roland, a Puerto Rican lesbian fifth-year engineering student, was one of the authors of last year’s proposal for a gay-lesbian-bisexual unit.

“I believe in separation. I believe in gaining a sense of who I am in a system that wishy-washes history,” said Roland, using the same argument put forth on behalf of ethnic and racial theme houses. Indeed, Roland says if the gay-lesbian-bisexual dorm had been approved, a proposal for a Latino theme house would not have been far behind.

Roland is not unmindful of the essential importance of meeting and learning about different types of people. She says her only experience with Jews before Cornell were stereotypes and Holocaust jokes and that it has been an important part of her personal growth overcoming that.

But she, like many of the black students, objects to the fact that the burden of desegregation always falls upon the minorities. The white prerogative to remain in mostly white settings is left unchallenged and undisturbed.

“It is hard to tell you how white these predominantly white institutions feel,” said longtime civil rights activist Roger Wilkins, who now teaches American history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “You have these white kids, loosey-goosey, sprawling, flipping the football around the campus, taking up physical and psychic space and they exude an aura of, ‘This is our place, we own it.’ “

There are slights large and small, Cornell sophomore Jonelle Bradshaw said. The assumption on the part of other students that she must be weak in math and science; the assumption that because she is tall and black she plays basketball (“I’m not athletic”); the feeling that in everything she says and does she is seen to be speaking and acting on behalf of her race.

Bradshaw has never lived in Ujamaa, and currently lives in a dorm in which she is virtually the only black person. But she says she still depends on Ujamaa as a place to repair to, to relax, to talk, to listen to some music.

“African-Americans would go insane without Ujamaa,” she said.

Ujamaa in Swahili means “familyhood” or “collective economics.” But to its critics on campus, Ujamaa has more sinister undertones.

“African-America students come here very open and come out of Ujamaa totally changed,” said Steve Rose, senior editor of the conservative student newspaper, The Cornell American. “After the first 30 days they see themselves as victims.”

“They come to Cornell not thinking in terms of race. The end up seeing everything through the lens of race,” said Jonathan Bloedow, the paper’s editor in chief and the international student representative on the assembly (he is from Canada.) “That can’t be a good thing.”

But senior Danielle Rembert, the former president of Cornell’s Black Student Union, who lived in Ujamaa until this year, said not everyone there is some budding Malcolm X or Betty Shabazz and she has known people who have passed through Ujamaa without even having their race consciousness pricked.

What’s more, even a radical black consciousness is not necessarily a permanently segregating condition.

Of the leaders of the student union takeover back in 1969, one now heads the world’s largest private pension fund and is newly installed as a Cornell trustee, and another is the new U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

And Richard Wright, a white graduate student in Near Eastern studies, who lived in Ujamaa a year, said Ujamaa, for all its excesses, proved a rich experience. “I got along better with Ujamites than with the white suburban Cornellians in the dorms, who would say, ‘You’re too uptight, Richard.’ “

Wright, a Baptist, says he “shared a lot of values” with other Ujamites. “They were very serious, hard working, interested in living a good life,” he recalls.

But with his blond crew cut and conservative politics, Wright says some Ujamites remained convinced he was a white supremacist spy and others were simply intolerant of his politics.

But Rembert figures even that intellectual brow-beating was good for Wright. “He experienced a little bit of what African-Americans experience every day,” she said.

Despite some nervousness there, Ujamaa’s future at Cornell appears secure. The administration is instead looking toward the possibility of requiring some sort of multicultural education for freshmen, of taking more aggressive steps to bring students together, and of more actively encouraging new students to consider less obvious housing choices as ways to ameliorate whatever destructive impact self-segregation is having.

Written by jonathantilove

July 27, 2022 at 11:12 am

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