But the course is also intended to help students “develop an appreciation for diversity,” according to the class description, and critics raised concerns that in separating students, such courses would promote racial silos instead of fostering interracial dialogue. Even several people interviewed for this story who were sympathetic to the idea questioned the legality and wisdom of implementing it. “I get it, I really do,” said Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University who has written for The Atlantic. “But it isn’t practical. I can’t imagine it standing up to criticism. The classroom has to be the space where everybody comes and is uncomfortable. College is about being safely uncomfortable.” That means no class nor section is perfect. There is going to be tension. But, she said, schools “can’t chase perfect at the expense of a democratic classroom.”
For McMillan Cottom, though, being safely uncomfortable in class is entirely different from being safely uncomfortable on campus. Which is why she pushes back at the notion that clubs, groups, and even housing geared toward a certain set of students, such as those of a certain race, amounts to resegregation.
Where most universities were designed around the needs and lives of white students, she said, and most white students can—and do—still avoid having uncomfortable conversations about race, black students “are never at a shortage” for uncomfortable racial conversations. In other words, white students can often elect not to engage in such conversations, where black students cannot escape them.
To carve out a safe space on campus where black students can get support from people who look like them and share similar backgrounds may ultimately help these students feel a sense of belonging and safety. These students are not cloistered away, McMillan Cottom pointed out. They still attend classes, eat in dining halls, and go to sporting events that are campus-wide. What white people often mean when they argue that creating such spaces is segregation, McMillan Cottom suggested, is that they also want the ability to self-segregate. The idea that black and white students come to campus with the same needs and concerns and deserve the exact same treatment is a “false equivalence,” she said. Black students are far more likely to come from high schools that lack advanced courses, to be low-income, and to be first-generation students from families unfamiliar with the college process.
That’s one reason another institution, the University of Connecticut, earlier this year announced a living community specifically for black men. Erik Hines, an assistant professor who was set to serve as a faculty advisor to residents, told The Atlantic at the time that the space was in part an attempt to address the fact that black men graduate from college at a lower rate than many of their peers. While graduation rates for white, Latino, and Asian students, as well as black women, are in the 70s and 80s at the school, graduation rates for black men are in the 50s. The school pointed out that young men of all backgrounds will be permitted to apply to the living community, and that the housing isn’t meant to exclude anyone, but to provide a safe space for students who may feel detached from the university community more broadly. The community is an attempt, Hines said, to give black students who may be in majors with just one or two other black students a chance to connect with other people who may feel isolated and may also feel burdened with representing the black community as a whole.