Most people thought segregation in education was a topic for history books, something that Brown v Board, the Little Rock Nine, and school bussing battles ended decades ago. But increasingly, the idea that students on college campuses should be segregated by race in clubs, classes, discussions on race, and even housing has made a comeback.
Many on the Right see this, not wholly unreasonably, as evidence of how unhinged progressives have become on racial issues. What could be clearer evidence of wrongheadedness than physically separating students based on the color of their skin? While I share conservative consternation at the trend as a whole, it is important to understand the historical and social roots of the Left’s support for racial segregation.
This stuff has been bubbling up for a quarter-century now and slowly getting legs. When I was a senior at Germantown Friends School in 1993, the progressive school’s Multicultural Students Union wanted a space on campus where white people were forbidden. At the time enough of the faculty and administration were from an older generation for whom such an idea was anathema, so it didn’t happen. But it was clear even then that the younger generation of teachers was much more open to the concept. This was directly related to the emerging ideas of privilege theory and valuing differences, for which my school was a laboratory.
We Can’t Talk with White People Around
I don’t find this desire for segregation completely absurd, though I do think the net negatives likely outweigh the positives. Basically, people of color feel they can’t say what they really feel in front of whites, who outnumber and judge them. Never having been in that position, I can’t really argue that this is or isn’t true. But as a white person, I have been in a similar, inverse situation many times.
One of the core concepts of privilege theory is that whites generally spend time surrounded by other whites, especially in upper-middle-class, professional, or higher education environments. For minorities, of course, the opposite is true. While I’m sure many white people would like to pretend this has no impact on what we say, or how we say it, experience tells most of us otherwise.
Most of us have been in rooms of only white people where someone says something we might not say if a black person were in the room. It’s not just jokes or slurs, it’s also issues like affirmative action, police violence, and black communities’ responsibilities. All by themselves, in my experience white people are more open to discussing controversial aspects of these issues without caveats. They need not begin by saying “I’m not talking about all black people, but…”
In many cases people of color are trying to avoid those exact caveats by banning white people from their conversations and social settings. They are trying to avoid apologizing for or explaining statements to people who do not share their experiences. The commonplace ability to do so may well be something whites take for granted.
Also, people of color aren’t the only people on college campuses who segregate themselves to have conversation with like-minded students. Colleges have Jewish groups, pro-life groups, pro-choice groups, women’s groups, Republican and Democrat clubs, and many more. All of these are an attempt by participants to engage in discussion, even debate, in an environment of people who generally either agree with them or share their experiences. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this.
But You Can’t Stay Segregated All the Time
Even if such segregated space is afforded to minority communities or other interest groups, obviously at some point a discussion with whites or the broader community becomes necessary for any change to occur. Whether it is black students demanding change or Jewish students resisting divestment from Israel, once the internal discussions are done, it’s time to talk to everyone.
This is exactly where many colleges are failing badly, specifically with regard to black campus groups. The mechanisms by which their segregated deliberations are presented to the communities at large have never been well established. Instead, well-intentioned liberal whites just nod their heads and agree, and conservatives roll their eyes.
Instead of fostering serious conversation between people of goodwill with disparate views, colleges are too often taking sides before that conversation can take place. Time and again students are being punished and even suspended for making statements that run counter to the narrative of progressive race theory. Students are literally prohibited from asking why Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be “All lives matter.” This is an illiberal and dangerous practice.
We arrived at this situation through a permutation of privilege theory over the past decade or so. My critique of privilege theory has never denied that it describes phenomena that exist (at least in the aggregate) in society. Yes, white people, on the whole, have advantages. This should be fairly obvious. But simply stating or confessing that fact does nothing to help the situation.
What began as a description of hidden societal advantages whites enjoy became a prescription for how to mitigate those supposed advantages. The snake oil provided as the cure to privilege was a pernicious belief that speech should be valued, not by its content, but by the level of privilege of the speaker.
This is more than simply amplifying voices that have traditionally been under-heard; it is inoculating them from the criticism of the privileged. While there may be nothing wrong with people of color deliberating on their own to present recommendations to the campus at large, such deliberations must not result in demands—especially when students are punished for even questioning the principles underlying the demands. Sadly, that is exactly what is happening.
Race Doesn’t Give Speech Priority, Though
Back in 1993 when intellectual tempers flared at my school over the Multicultural Student Union’s demand for segregated space, there were assemblies, meetings, and school-wide conversations. It was a healthy approach that embodied the value of classical liberal education. Nobody expressed the belief that anyone’s speech or ideas were of less value because of his or her complexion.
Today, not only on campuses, but also in the arts and in progressive protest culture, weighting speech’s value based on the speaker’s demographic identity is de rigueur. In all of these areas, the precious (and arguably condescending) ways some treat the ideas of those they consider oppressed is doing harm. College debating is being transformed from a competition of ideas into one of emotion. Theater artists are asking that for a full year the nation’s stages perform no plays by straight, white men. Black Lives Matter is currently demanding the abolition of the New York Police Department.
All of these absurd and untenable ideas are a result of considering the speech of the underprivileged untouchable. Even as an opening bargaining position, barring plays by white men or disbanding the police are simply non-starters. Rather, they are fantasies being coddled by academics that prefer pandering to rigor.
What To Do Instead of Pandering
Colleges walk a fine line in dealing with segregated spaces. They should be doing as little as possible about them. Colleges should allow student groups, especially advocacy groups or protests, to be as self-selecting as possible without making broad exclusionary rules. The vast majority of white students have no desire to march into the Black Student Union and demand inclusion. If one does, deal with it individually.
Housing and courses present different challenges, as colleges administer them more directly. Concerns that accommodations and educational opportunities should be provided without racial bias deserve consideration. But students of color who desire more segregated social or educational opportunities need not be shouted down as racists like those who dare to say “All lives matter.” There is a more tolerant and caring conversation that can be had about these issues than yelling “You’re the real racists.”
That conversation delves deeply into our society’s policies on race over the past century. The result of the civil rights movement was a government that may coerce integration. Private choice regarding freedom of association was abandoned. Rand Paul got into hot water for suggesting the 1964 Civil Rights Act went too far in this regard. But now progressives seem convinced that private choice in association is in fact a right. How we can have “non-white” spaces while still prohibiting “all-white” spaces is not clear.
Privilege theory justifies this double standard for progressives, but nothing in the law codifies this distinction. If we are to adjust course towards a society that embraces the right to associate on a segregated basis even in institutional settings, it may well require a sea change in how whites, Christians, men, and other “privileged” classes are allowed to segregate themselves.
Balanced approaches can accommodate students of color who want their own spaces or opportunities to engage with each other. Segregation is not the problem; it’s a symptom of the problem. The real problem is that the ability of people from different races, cultures, and experiences to share ideas is breaking down. That problem will only be solved when we return to the goal of considering people’s ideas, rather than their identities. Until that happens, regardless of which rooms people occupy, nothing will substantially change.