A question of culture

In December 1971, black students in Stockwell Hall submitted a list of grievances that suggested a sorry state of race relations in the all-female dormitory. The young women said they were suffering “gross inequities” and racial harassment; that black male visitors were treated shabbily by white staff and students; that white resident advisors had entered the locked rooms of black students in violation of the students’ leases; that Stockwell’s social activities were designed by and for white students; that white students who complained about rooming with blacks were promptly reassigned to white roommates. Black students in other dorms voiced similar complaints. “Black and white students, particularly in dormitories, seem to be suffering not so much from overt racism, as from failure to understand each other,” the Daily reported.

“Whites try as much as possible to ignore blacks,” said an advisor in East Quad, “and blacks try as much as possible to ignore whites.”Two years earlier, in the spring of 1970, student protesters calling themselves the Black Action Movement had won significant concessions from the University administration. After eight days of students striking and national media attention, officials had pledged funding and support to raise black enrollment from less than two percent to ten percent within three years. The money had been provided as promised. But students were saying now the University was focusing only on raw numbers—dollars of financial aid and tallies of admitted black students—with insufficient attention to the problems of black students adjusting to life in an overwhelmingly white environment.

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Now, in January 1972, some black students proposed a radical alternative called Afro-American Cultural Living Units. The fifth and sixth floors of South Quad and a corridor in Stockwell—some 400 spaces—would be set aside for students “who have an interest in Afro-American and African culture without regard to race, color and religion.” Without saying it in so many words, the proposals implied that racial integration at the University of Michigan simply was not working.This was a hard pill to swallow for many who had supported the civil rights movement as most whites had understood it, with its ideal of a colorblind society. U-M President Robben Fleming, reserving judgment for a time, summarized the division of opinion:

The arguments I hear run something like this: Most civil rights advocates have thought for some years that the principal way to resolve our racial tensions is to bring about greater integration. Because this proposal [for Afro-American Cultural Living Units] would doubtless have the de facto result of largely bringing black students into the specific living units, it would be a step backward from integration… The contrary argument is that integration may be an ideal, but it does not presently exist and we should therefore recognize transitional stages. Many of our white and black students who come to the University have had little exposure to one another previously, and it is too much to expect that tensions will disappear when they are brought together for the first time.

Debate escalated. The Detroit Urban League endorsed the plan, but the Michigan NAACP called it “a step away, if not back, from integration.” The national media began to call. A media-savvy student leader named Lee Gill, chairman of South Quad’s Minority Council (and later president of Student Government Council), told the New York Times the plan would enable black students to “establish a power base. This is not any type of Southern segregation. This is just a chance for black students to get themselves together.” Carl Cohen, a U-M professor of philosophy then serving as president of Michigan’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, retorted: “If we let one group live together, we are going to have to be consistent. We’ll have to let graduates of high schools live together if they want to, or football players, or Catholics.”

painting of African woman

Paintings adorn minority student lounges at U-M. Above, a painting in South Quad’s Afro-American (Ambatana) Lounge. The artwork below is in Alice Lloyd Hall’s Umoja (formerly Newcomb) Lounge.

Students confounded expectations on both sides. A survey by the Housing Division tallied 112 black students and 110 white students prepared to sign up for the living spaces.The Housing Division gave its approval. So did Fleming. In a tense, packed public meeting, the Regents listened to both sides and came out divided. “Blacks are looking for a nursemaid,” remarked Robert Brown, a Regent from Kalamazoo. “I had no idea there were such racial tensions here,” said Gertrude Huebner, a Regent from Bloomfield Hills. “I thought we were doing so well. I’m just very depressed.”The Regents were expected to follow Fleming’s lead and approve the plan. They did not. When the University’s chief lawyer, Roderick Daane, said the plan ran the risk of violating the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the governing board voted it down unanimously.But the Regents made it clear they had heard the black students. Acknowledging “dismal failures in the areas of counseling, dorm advisors and in dealing with differences in life style,” as Regent Lawrence Lindemer put it, they directed the administration to explore the problems of black students adjusting to a majority-white campus and to develop plans to meet their needs.The most conspicuous result was the constellation of minority-themed student lounges, starting in South Quad and Stockwell, that developed over time in all of the University’s residence halls. These lounges, often controversial themselves, symbolize the pragmatic balance that came out of that early-1970s episode. Integration would remain the rule in University housing. But students of color—first African-Americans, then Native Americans, Latino-Americans, and Asian-Americans—were to be recognized as cultural groups with a particular need for places and programs that affirmed their group identity and helped them adjust to life in a majority-white population. Many other universities followed Michigan’s example. Nearly thirty years later, in 2000, U-M published the results of a thorough study of students’ attitudes about race relations and cultural diversity on the campus. The authors concluded:”For students of color the university’s commitment to diversity not only provides the opportunity to interact with and learn about other groups and cultures, but also gives legitimacy to the unique experiences and cultural contributions of their own groups… Students of color, particularly African American students, responded to this recognition of the uniqueness of different group experiences by learning about their own heritage and increasing their sense of group identity. White students responded to it more ambivalently. While…most white students agree with the principle of cultural pluralism, they are also concerned that accenting group differences can be polarizing, can inhibit honesty in intergroup relationships, and may constrain the ability of white students and students of color to relate to each other ‘as individuals.’… “Despite this tension between individual and group orientations that is central to the national debate on multiculturalism, most white students as well as students of color feel that the commitment to diversity embodied in the campus diversity plan has had a positive impact on their college experience.”

Sources include the papers of the Vice President for Student Services at the Bentley Historical Library, The Michigan Daily, and John Matlock, Gerald Gurin and Katrina Wade-Golden, “The Michigan Student Study: Students’ Expectations of Experiences with Racial/Ethnic Diversity,” Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, University of Michigan, 2000.

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