No, it wasn’t the right decision. The U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous 1896 ruling permitted states to provide separate facilities and services based upon race if those accommodations were “equal” for African Americans and other minorities. It functionally re-instituted a new era of American slavery — only by a different name and under the veneer of judicial validation — because those facilities and services, while separate, were anything but equal.
A single justice, Kentuckian John Marshall Harlan, dissented against the court’s narrow interpretation of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment and correctly predicted that the ruling would plant the “seeds of race hate” into the laws of states across the nation. He happened to be a Republican — although Supreme Court decisions are not supposed to be political of course, but never mind. “Plessy” took the better part of a century to mostly overcome, and with the exception of a small number of societally ostracized skin-headed racist buffoons today, we almost all accept that hard-won historical reality: “Plessy” was the wrong decision.
But the emergence of what some are calling voluntary segregation being practiced in college campus housing programs appears to raise new questions for a long-settled legal and societal stain on our nation’s aspirational battle to achieve genuine equality of opportunity among all citizens. Sometimes it’s necessary for purposes of evaluation, to raise as a question an otherwise settled issue to add historical context to current events. It seems to me this is one such moment.
In Bellingham, Washington, Western Washington University now offers what it calls Black affinity housing on the fourth floor of its Alma Clark Glass Residence Hall, which is named for WWU’s first Black student who attended in 1906. The university website describes the pilot housing program initially designed for 40 resident students thusly:
“Black affinity housing residents, representing all diverse identities, pride themselves on fostering a sense of belonging for all residents by creating a safe environment for open, honest and sometimes challenging dialogue. Regular programmatic events and interactions allow students to deepen knowledge and understanding of themselves, peers and the world.”
Like other similar programs at other universities, it’s not mandatory. It’s by application, and space is limited and quite small. WWU enrolls over 14,000 undergraduates, making the 40-student affinity housing program available to under three tenths of 1% of that population. According to the website, the program is open to students of all ethnic origins.
So what, if anything, does it have in common with “separate but equal” as defined by the “Plessy” Supreme Court ruling? Well, I guess one could argue that Black affinity housing encourages a small group of students to separate themselves from the rest of the student population to focus more intently on social, economic and legal issues from the perspective of a narrower group of citizens or students than they otherwise might. But isn’t that essentially what colleges and universities ask of students with any area of interest in which they engage — be it a course of study, a club activity or participation in a musical group or on an athletic team? And even more to the point, unlike “separate but equal,” college housing is temporary and does not result in the permanent, intentional and systemic diminution of anyone else’s college experience, or more broadly, like “Plessy,” their opportunity at economic and societal success as they themselves would define it.
Here’s the thing: For the past two decades, I have lived and worked in the Roaring Fork Valley. As I have written previously, it remains the most economically and ethnically stratified place that I’ve ever lived, and that’s saying something since I grew up on the Mason-Dixon line in 1970s Cincinnati, Ohio. So, if I’m honest with myself, I must conclude that the value of my perspective on the potential benefits of such programs as WWU’s Black affinity housing is limited, other than to freely admit I would probably learn a lot if I lived on the fourth floor of Alma Clark Glass Hall for a semester or two.
And yes, I’d like a little credit for trying to keep from offending the valley’s prevalent white liberal sensibilities by avoiding the “S” word — as in segregated — in describing our valley in that prior paragraph.
But this is the reality of the place that we have built over the decades, with its high economic barriers to entry and success. On the other end of the political spectrum, many of my more conservative brethren often lament — with some legitimacy, in my view — what they see as a liberally led, politically motivated governmental coddling of minority communities going all the way back to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. They see a diminished pursuit of their own success outside the realm of such governmental intervention on the part of those communities as that government intervention’s direct consequence. So, why would they not support such an educational experiment as this, one of whose stated goals is to facilitate the development of such shared, autonomous understanding?
If he were alive today, what would Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan think of American universities offering housing programs intended to address head on the questions of what it means to be a part of a genuinely diverse society from the perspective of America’s historically most discriminated-against ethnic communities? I don’t know, but other than being disappointed that over 125 years after his historic dissent such a program remained necessary, I think there is a good chance he would approve.