NEW YORK – From white-only high school proms to black and Hispanic college graduation ceremonies, more student events have become self-segregated.
That has some wondering what happened to the concept of integration in the nation's schools and universities, and questioning if there is hypocrisy involved in accepting some of these activities while condemning others.
High-school students in Taylor, Ga., were criticized by many in May when they decided to hold a private whites-only prom.
Yet many colleges and universities hold separate graduations and "celebratory events" for students of some ethnic and racial groups — in addition to those schools having race-based living quarters — with hardly anyone batting an eye.
"We understand that's discrimination," Linda Chavez (search), president of the Center for Equal Opportunity (search) and a Fox News contributor, said of the whites-only prom. "But it seems like there is a double standard in these places toward similar activities when it's engaged by minority students."
Carol Swain (search), author of Contemporary Voices of White Nationalism and a Vanderbilt University professor, said criticizing just one side is taking "identity politics too far."
"As long as universities and colleges and high schools support black activities," Swain said, "there will be increasing pressure for them to allow white students the same latitude, because it's a double standard and I think more and more people can see that."
Vanderbilt, Stanford University and the University of California are among those that offer separate graduation ceremonies for minority students. Other schools, including the University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania, have separate "celebratory events" for black, Hispanic and Asian-American students.
Those events are "good sometimes, it depends on whether it's done in an exclusionary way or an enriching way," said Gary Orfield (search), co-director of Harvard's Civil Rights Project (search) and author of Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation. "We've got to keep some kind of reasonable doubt — people are being asked to come together and share things … we have to find a way to accommodate that rather than excluding," Orfield said.
But some events do exclude people of certain color. For instance, a May workshop at the University of Colorado hosted by Stop Hate on Campus, a student-fee funded group, did not allow whites to attend.
Organizers said the event was "not designed for white people" and was intended as a "safe space" for "people of color," according to the Independence Institute's Jessica Peck, who tried to take part in the event.
"If you're excluding people from being involved in any kind of official activity at a college or university on the basis of the color of their skin, that's racial segregation," said Chavez.
Many groups argue the separate events recognize student achievement and give them a sense of community. But experts agree there's a tricky distinction to be made in the image these groups are portraying.
"A lot of people look at these events and they assume race relations don't work," Orfield said. "But until we get to be a society where race doesn't matter, these are going to be extremely complicated issues."
But what if a group of white students wanted to form their own campus group?
That's "racist," said civil rights attorney Leo James Terrell, who defended the separate groups. "If a college that has an integrated campus has an all-white college activity, that is insulting. For what? To promote what? White pride?
"Someone is trying to assume that Asians and blacks are on the same level, historically, in this country, as whites."
Critics accuse the groups of racial doublespeak when white groups are attacked for trying to conduct similar activities and say they're contributing to self-segregation.
"It certainly defies all of the talk about diversity on campus," Chavez said.
"It's hard for them [white students] to understand why it's understandable for blacks, Latinos, Asians to have separate groups … and not tolerated when whites try to make the same choices," Swain noted.
"I think with the passage of time and us so removed from the early years of the civil rights movement, it's harder to justify those types of programs unless you let white students do the same thing."
Lucius Outlaw (search), director of African-American Studies at Vanderbilt, said "clustering" around people of similar backgrounds and heritages — such as having a black campus fraternity house — is natural.
"I don't see that as necessarily as being bad or 'segregationist,'" he said.
"Do we think in the future if it will be a bad thing if [racially] identifiable neighborhoods … if all those neighborhoods were open to other people moving in who were of a different racial or ethnic group? I would still call that an integrated society."
Outlaw pointed out that most events don't have to be billed as "white events," to be geared predominantly toward white students.
"There may be standards of differentiation, which we've got going on all the time," he said. "What this country has not had is a credible articulation of laws and policies that can allow the recognition and utilization of racial and ethnic distinction without being invidious."