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Self-Segregated Dorms a Trend and an Uproar : Civil rights: Universities accede to students' demands, organize housing by ethnicity, race, sexual orientation.

April 03, 1994|MARY JORDAN | WASHINGTON POST

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The newest dormitory at Brown University, one set aside chiefly for African Americans, is called Harambee House, Swahili for "the coming together of community."

Already on Brown's hilltop campus overlooking downtown are Hispanic House, French House, Slavic House, East Asian House and German House.

From this Ivy League school in New England to little-known colleges in the Pacific Northwest, many universities are acceding to students' demands and organizing dormitories by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation--even by drinkers and teetotalers.

But as they do, educators question whether these specialized living arrangements are bringing people together, as the name "Harambee" suggests, or driving them further apart.

"Doonesbury" and other comic strips have parodied what some call the "separatist movement," depicting scenes like campus drinking fountains labeled for blacks and whites.

In a sign of concern, Brown has halted opening any more "theme" houses until their effects can be studied. "We don't want to have a Balkanization of the campus," said Executive Vice President Robert A. Reichley.

Reichley said the idea of a university is to have diverse people living and learning together in one community, not "small enclaves."

The separatist movement is a hot issue well beyond Providence. In February, at the University of Pennsylvania, a special commission studying the "key aspects of campus life" recommended that first-year students be assigned housing to avoid what it called "self-segregation."

Under the current system, students may choose where they will live. The commission found that they often "self-segregate and lose opportunities for wider interaction among diverse groups of students."

Claire Fagin, Penn's interim president, said she is considering a pilot program next year in which students would agree to be randomly assigned to dorms.

"In general, what we are seeing is a much more divided population on our college campuses," Fagin said. "We are moving into a very, very hyphenated world: It's Asian-American, African-American . . . it's so contrary to everything I grew up with . . . when everyone fought to just be American."

"For many of us who stress pluralism, these are not easy times," she said.

Although separate housing is perhaps the most controversial part of recent demands from student groups, it is not the only one. On many campuses, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, gay students and others have demanded their own lounges, activities, even their own curriculum.

Nothing, however, seems to unnerve people as much as separate housing, especially when it involves African Americans. Some see it as a painful slap at the 1950s and '60s fight for integration.

"The goal of the civil rights movement was to be color-blind," said Robin Rose, Brown's dean of student life. "There was a high value on integration, integration at any cost. Now these students are saying, any cost is too high. They want to live together. And who can blame them?"

Abigail Ramsay said she is glad she can live in Harambee House, after living last year on a floor where all the other students were white. "All of a sudden I can talk to people going through the same things," said Ramsay, a New Yorker who aspires to be a doctor. "It feels more like home."

Proponents say there are small comforts that help them in their studies, such as shared tastes in music and food, and more important ones, such as living with people who have felt the sting of the same racial or ethnic insults. College officials at many campuses agree that black students often earn better grades when they are living in exclusively African American dorms.

Ramsay said that because she is black, in a city with a small percentage of black residents, Providence natives have assumed that she couldn't be a Brown student. She said some have even approached her "thinking I am a prostitute because I am a black woman."

On a campus where 7% of undergraduates are African American, Ramsay said she is always in the minority, except when she comes back to Harambee. In its first year, Harambee has 17 students who fill two floors of a brick building in Wriston Quad. Sixteen are African American, and one is white.

The house, "open to all students who identify with their African descent, speak an African language or major solely in Pan-African studies," is expected to attract more African American students next year.

Joshua Lehrer, a Brown sophomore who is white, is one of the students who doesn't think separate dorms are a good idea. He said he had more black friends when he attended high school in Philadelphia than he does at Brown, even though he is around many more African Americans there.

Of Brown's 5,600 undergraduates, 390 are African American, 300 are Hispanic and 660 are Asian.

Lehrer said students naturally tend to eat, go to movies and parties and become friendly with the people they live with. So, he said, separate housing inhibits the mixing of different groups of people.

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