Racially-Themed Dorms Fair for All?

California State University of LA (CSULA), UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and University of Connecticut (UCONN) have all recently come under scrutiny due to their racially themed dorms.  The concern is that the themed living arrangements—targeted as they are at persons of color—represent a revived attempt at racial segregation. These colleges are far from alone in offering such housing. There are quite a few campuses that offer similar housing arrangements.

The many housing arrangements vary from sections of a dormitory hall reserved exclusively for African-American men (UCONN), to sections of a dormitory hall designed to be focused on respect for the cultures of persons of color (CSULA and UC Davis), to entire houses dedicated to respecting the culture of persons of color (UC Berkely).

Joining these housing arrangements is 100% voluntary. With the exception of the UCONN hall section, all of these housing arrangements are open to any who apply.  The hall sections are all within a fully integrated dorm.  Generally, they are all created with the goal of creating a more comfortable space for persons of color—free from micro-aggressions and bullying.  The exception to this is, again, UCONN’s attempt at themed housing, which has a stated goal of promoting higher retention and graduation rates among African-American men.

My colleague has recently written a truly excellent article, addressing whether or not these themed housing arrangements are, in fact, veiled racial segregation. It notes that racial discrimination is still an everyday experience for persons of color—providing a safe space from hate crimes and bullying is something to be lauded. It also determines, probably correctly, that these themed dorms are not unconstitutional segregation. Dorm 2

However, the possibility of segregation is an extremely dangerous one. UCONN’s African-American male exclusive dorm hall has already drawn complaints from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as beneficent racism.  Their complaints cite the words of Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, the psychiatrist whose testimony contributed to the U.S. Supreme Court striking down segregation in schools once and for all—the greatest triumph of white racism would be “to persuade its black victims that segregation was not only acceptable but desirable in itself, and that the justification for this separatism was color alone.”

What are the potential dangers to minority students? What legal liability could the colleges implementing them may open themselves up to?

Segregation and Fair Housing Rules

Suffice it to say Supreme Court decisions and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 work together to make government and private acts of segregation illegal and unconstitutional today. However, despite being made unconstitutional over a half a century ago; segregation is still not exclusively a thing of the past.  With this in mind, the Fair Housing Act exists to prevent discrimination in housing—including in college dorms.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits, among other protected classes, race-based discrimination in housing by public or private actors. The Act protects against many types of discrimination, first and foremost refusal to rent or sell (or make available for rent or sale) a property to somebody based on a protected characteristic such as race. It also bars discriminating in terms of conditions rental or sale, misrepresenting availability of housing, or advertising for housing.  Fair housing claims also frequently arise out of discriminatory application processes.  The act also bars “steering,” or directing somebody to look in a specific place for housing based on a protected characteristic.

Even beyond all these protections provided by the Fair Housing Act, organizations which take grants from the federal government—such as every single university which has introduced racially-themed housing listed above—are held to an even higher standard by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Just last year HUD published a ruled placing an obligation on those who take advantage of certain grants to affirmative further fair housing by taking “steps proactively to overcome historic patterns of segregation, promote fair housing choice, and foster inclusive communities for all.”

What Does This Mean for Themed Dorms and the Universities that Offer Them?

As my colleague determined, these themed dorms are very unlikely to be actual segregation based on the facts in front of us. Just considering that they are open to all who apply by itself points heavily in this direction.  The only program that is actually exclusionary in any sense is the UCONN program that has come under fire—only serving men who identify as black.  Even then, the fact that participation is totally voluntary would undercut most arguments of segregation.  HUD standards explicitly state that the Fair Housing Act does not prevent people from living where they choose—it only prohibits “policies and actions by covered entities and individuals that deny choice or access to housing or opportunity through the segregation of persons protected by the Fair Housing Act.”

The most common complaint now is “reverse racism.” To be blunt, these housing arrangements do not represent discrimination against white people.  While race-based discrimination under the Fair Housing Act does indeed include discrimination against Caucasians, such claims are generally held to a higher evidentiary standard because, not surprisingly, discrimination against majority groups is much more uncommon.

These housing programs are usually open to all who apply and represent a very small percentage of the comparable housing readily available, often within the same dormitory hall. We know nothing of the application and acceptance process.  Even were potentially discriminatory practices to come to light, it seems unlikely that this housing would pose a constitutional issue.

As has been seen with affirmative action in the past—including in the realm of housing—providing opportunities based on race can be acceptable where the purpose behind the policy is to offset previous and ongoing racial discrimination—something that undeniably exists for minorities in the realm of housing.  In fact, under HUD guidelines one could even argue that universities are required to make such safe-space housing available.

When it comes to fair housing generally, the issue essentially comes down to the terms, cost, and quality of the housing they provide. While most of the housing is open to all, housing such as UCONN’s is especially vulnerable to suit if the housing provided is not of comparable quality with other dorm halls.  What’s more, universities will need to be careful about steering.  Even well intentioned prodding towards racially-themed housing may well leave them vulnerable to a lawsuit.

It is important to be wary of any housing program which limits its services to such a narrow group of minorities. While creating safe spaces is indeed to be congratulated, it is crucial to keep an eye on the quality of the services and housing these programs offer.  It is a small step for such a program to move from safe spaces to segregation.

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