Point of View: Op-Ed Articles

Separate Is Never Equal

Kenneth B. Clark and Michael Meyers
Published: April 01, 1995

The continued segregation of Cornell University student housing is evidence that too many educators, when asked to demonstrate what they really believe and will stand up for, resort to double talk, expediency and outright duplicity.

As a result of a complaint by the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Cornell’s racially oriented housing is being investigated by the State Education Department.

The investigation of the Native American dorm, called Akwe:kon, as well as the Latino Living Center are new. But Ujamaa College, the mostly black student residence, is being examined for at least a third time.

Ujamaa was set up as a separate all-black residence in 1972 in an atmosphere of racial ferment and threats of violence. At that time, students who were not black were excluded from Ujamaa. Some blacks who were not a part of the demand for a segregated residence were intimidated into living there by peers. Cornell reinforced the segregation by distributing materials to black students that said the residence was for blacks.

The establishment and operation of Ujamaa clearly violated New York law and the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits Federal financial assistance to institutions that permit racially segregated facilities. Nevertheless, Cornell denied that the law was violated and defended Ujamaa in 1972 and again in 1976, when the state began its first inquiry.

After the 1976 investigation, Ewald B. Nyquist, the Education Commissioner, concluded that Ujamaa was illegal and had to be desegregated. The desegregation order was one of several issued at the time to New York colleges that had permitted racially segregated facilities. Only Cornell defied the commissioner’s and Board of Regents’ directive.

When Cornell did not back down, the Regents did. In 1977, both sides entered into a consent order that repealed Mr. Nyquist’s order. It merely called upon Cornell to revise the way its publications characterized Ujamaa and to introduce a monitoring system that insured that no one was assigned to or excluded from Ujamaa on the basis of race, color or national origin.

Given the history of Cornell’s strident and at times irrational insistence on segregation — supposedly at the behest of minority students — it is no wonder that Ujamaa remains an overwhelmingly black, segregated residence.

Indeed, Balkanization of the campus has increased, with the opening of the Latino Living Center and Akwe:kon for Native Americans.

The 1977 consent order was ineffective, predictably. Supporters of segregation considered it a transparent avoidance of a showdown. Supporters of desegregation called it a cynical evasion of the Regents’ responsibility to compel Cornell to comply with the law.

Cornell’s continuing assertion that these segregated residences are not really segregated but represent students’ “freedom of choice” eerily recalls the rationalizations that guardians of the Old South offered in defense of their racist traditions.

However fashionable segregation is among blacks and whites as a “necessary step toward eventual equality” or as a “phase” for black empowerment (or some sort of identity movement), its supporters fail to consider the implications of their position. If segregation or separatism is desirable as a phase and a means, it is even more desirable as an end.

In accommodating the mindlessness of race-based campus housing in Ithaca and accepting the alibis for separatism, Cornell and the Board of Regents are accessories to a functional repeal of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education pronouncement that separate education is inherently unequal.

Kenneth B. Clark, professor emeritus of psychology at the City College of New York, is a former member of the Board of Regents. Michael Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.