In a Washington Post opinion piece entitled "I’m Northwestern’s president. Here’s why safe spaces for students are important.," Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro provides us with two examples of why students should be able to segregate themselves. The first example:
"A group of black students were having lunch together in a campus dining hall. There were a couple of empty seats, and two white students asked if they could join them. One of the black students asked why, in light of empty tables nearby. The reply was that these students wanted to stretch themselves by engaging in the kind of uncomfortable learning the college encourages. The black students politely said no. Is this really so scandalous?
I find two aspects of this story to be of particular interest.
First, the familiar question is 'Why do the black students eat together in the cafeteria?' I think I have some insight on this based on 16 years of living on or near a college campus: Many groups eat together in the cafeteria, but people seem to notice only when the students are black. Athletes often eat with athletes; fraternity and sorority members with their Greek brothers and sisters; a cappella group members with fellow singers; actors with actors; marching band members with marching band members; and so on.
And that brings me to the second aspect: We all deserve safe spaces. Those black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace. There are plenty of times and places to engage in uncomfortable learning, but that wasn’t one of them. The white students, while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place."
First, it is remarkable how there is nothing new under the sun. Back more than 40 years ago, I was attending the University of Chicago and working together with black students to pay for my books and sundry expenses. Sometimes, I chose to eat with those black students, who, with other black students, had set aside their own table in the college cafeteria. My decision to eat with them was a statement of friendship, and I was never asked to leave.
Regarding Schapiro's example, it is of course the prerogative of the black students to refuse to engage in sociological discussions with white students while eating their meals. On the other hand, it is not their right to refuse to allow non-black students to sit with them in a university dining hall, if the university receives government funding.
Now, let's turn this example around: Would Schapiro allow white students to set aside their own table from which black students are excluded, owing to the desire of the white students not to be troubled by stories of poverty, violence and injustice? After all, these white students just want to eat their meals "in peace." Sorry, Morton, but the thought is obscene.
Now I know why I didn't go to Northwestern.