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Cal State LA's new black student housing questioned, but it's nothing new

A sign at the California State University, Los Angeles campus.
A sign at the California State University, Los Angeles campus.
Cal State LA

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California State University Los Angeles students are back on campus now, and one dorm is making a lot of news.

The school's Black Student Union asked for a new housing option last year. So the university rolled out the Halisi Black Scholars Living-Learning Community.

It's a dorm for students who are interested in the black community, or who are black. 

Critics are calling it "segregated housing." But Cal State LA student Jonathan Thomas supports the dorm. 

"It says black housing, they automatically equate it with black only and it's just people who identify as black so it can be for anybody," he told our media partner NBC4.

To give us some perspective on themed housing on university campuses and how they fit into a larger conversation about safe spaces for students, Deepa Fernandes spoke to Sarah Brown, a reporter with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Interview Highlights

On themed housing and other instances where it has been controversial:

You see quite a number of residential areas basically structured around a cultural theme, so it might be African-American culture, it might be Latino culture, it might be Native American culture, so there are dozens and dozens of examples of housing structured around these themes, just as Cal State LA's new housing opportunity is.

Where there's been some controversy at places like the University of Connecticut and University of Iowa, they involve living-learning communities that really are targeted toward black students very specifically, but at Cal State LA what officials there have said is that's not the case at all. This is open to all students who are interested in African-American culture.

On the source of the controversy:

The word "segregation" has been thrown around a lot by critics, so in the case of Cal State LA as well as at Iowa and UConn, you see headlines like "black-only housing" and "segregated housing for blacks," so a lot of critics are saying, you know, 'why are campuses segregating black students away from the rest of the population? Isn't that problematic in and of itself and doesn't it miss one of the main reasons students go to college, which is to interact and learn among a diverse student population? Campus officials I talk to will often counter and say, 'first of all, these housing communities are nothing like segregation because it's voluntary.' And they'll add that just because students live in the same residential area, doesn't mean they're cut off from other students on campus. They spend most of their day in classes, in the library, doing extracurricular activities with other students on campus, so that's not the way the critics portray these communities at all...This controversy mostly seems to be the result of right leaning or conservative-leaning media outlets drumming up a controversy where they isn't much of one at all.

On what themed houses do for students:

Particularly on predominantly white campuses, one thing you'll often hear from students is that they are surrounded throughout the day by students, faculty, staff who don't look like them, and these themed houses allow students to find community support among peers who understand the unique challenges and difficulties that minority students face on these communities allow them to success more, both academically and socially.

Click the blue audio player to hear the full interview.