Ethnic-Themed Housing: Should We Live Together or Apart?

In his essay “The ‘Black Table’ Is Still There,” Lawrence Otis Graham wonders why, years after he graduated, the “black-only” lunch table is still present in his junior high school.

Why was it there? Why did the black kids separate themselves? What did the table say about the integration that was supposed to be going on in homerooms and gym classes? What did it say about the black kids? The white kids? What did it say about me when I refused to sit there, day after day, for three years?

By the end of his essay, Graham is no closer to answering his questions than he was at the beginning. “Perhaps I should be happy,” he says, “that even this is a long way from where we started.” But, after fourteen years, he cannot get over the fact that the “black table” is still there. Graham’s essay contemplates a question that is fundamental to our multiracial and multiethnic society: should we live together or apart?

This question is central to many of the Supreme Court decisions and much of the civil rights legislation of the last fifty years. In 1954, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka said that separate educational facilities for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 further integrated African Americans (and, by extension, other victims of discrimination) into the American mainstream. Today, however, some colleges seem to be moving toward voluntary segregation by creating ethnic-themed housing for students who want to live with others like themselves. This housing, supporters say, is necessary to ensure that minority students feel at home when they attend a primarily white institution. They liken ethnic-themed housing to honors dorms and say that it is just another way for students to explore their individuality.

Critics of such housing argue that this self-imposed segregation undermines the diversity that many colleges seek to promote. According to these critics, colleges should reject all efforts to segregate students and should randomly assign students to housing just as they randomly assign them to classes. Only in this way will people with different backgrounds learn to live together. Critics further assert that to avoid being hypocritical, educators should stop reinforcing values that they would reject in the larger society. In other words, how can educators endorse ethnic-themed housing when they would condemn segregated neighborhoods, “separate but equal” school systems, and black-only lunch tables?