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Theme Dorms: A Place of Solace or Segregation

October 27, 2016




         Racially segregated college housing is upon us. . . or is it? The introduction of Halisi Scholars Black Living-Learning Community, a theme dorm, at California State University Los Angeles (“CSULA”), has caused speculation over whether the new housing community has created a racially segregated living space  solely for black students attending CSULA.[1] Theme dorms are living learning communities on college and university campuses that consist of creating a living space intentionally designed to center around students’ experiences and interests, some of which are academic, cultural, organizational and personal interests.[2]  Theme dorms were created to allow students with common interests to live together and support each other through various interactions, events, and activities.[3]

        College and university campuses provide students the opportunity to live in any campus living community of their choosing.[4] However, students who are interested in living in one of the theme dorms on any campus must apply and the application is open to all students interested.[5] Understandably, the majority of the students who end up living within the specified theme dorm may be a representative of the academic, cultural, or organizational group that the dorm intended to target,  however, colleges and universities have assured all students  that the application and the selection process in no way excludes or prevents anyone outside of the targeted group from having an opportunity to become a resident.[6]

CSULA is neither the first nor the only university to offer culturally-based theme dorms as campus housing options for students; other colleges and universities have provided their students with the option to live in ethnic or culture-based theme dorms as well.[7] Nonetheless, CSULA’s new ethnic theme dorm has sparked arguments and concerns over whether theme dorms that are created and targeted to students of color create segregation within campus housing communities, or whether the dorms create a safe haven for students who live within them.

        Part I of this article will examine whether theme dorms create segregation. Part II will then discuss how theme dorms provide a comfortable living environment to students who live in them. Through examining both sides of the argument made in the media a conclusion will be made as to whether theme dorms created to target people of color should be found constitutional and thus legally sound.





       College and university housing communities face the burden of proving that theme dorms targeted towards people of color do not create or encourage segregation within campus housing communities. Segregation is defined as an act or process of separating.[8] The process of separating students within the education system was held to be unconstitutional in 1954 in the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education.[9] The holding in Brown mandated that there could no longer be a separation in education; and that pre-K schools, colleges, and universities would be open to all students no matter their race.[10] Presently, some argue that theme dorms, which can foster a housing program that allows students to separate into housing groups through common interests, experiences, and identities, seems to create a separation in the educational system in which would clearly go against the Court’s holding in Brown.[11]

     The argument is not without merit. Offering a housing community, such as theme dorms, that allows students that share common interests, experience, and identities to live together has the potential to make traditional dorm communities less diverse.[12] However, most theme dorm communities are relatively small. For instance, CSULA’s Halisi Scholars Black Living-Learning Community provides housing for twenty-four students out of roughly 1,000 students who can live in their campus housing facilities.[13] Still, even though theme dorms typically house a small number of students, they can have an effect on the overall diversity within campus housing communities, especially if the majority of the residents are a part of the theme’s targeted group.[14]

       Traditional campus housing communities may become less diverse if ethnic or culturally based theme dorms are permitted, but, ultimately, these theme dorms may also encourage self-segregation within campus housing communities. Self-segregation or self-separation occurs when a person chooses to separate themselves into a particular group instead of being forced to separate into a particular group.[15] If theme dorms allow students to live in separate dorms of their choosing based on their common interests, experiences, or cultural connections then colleges and universities that offer theme dorms are encouraging their students to self-segregate.[16] The question then turns on whether Brown v. Board would extend to a case in which persons chose to separate in an educational environment and were not required to do so—a question that has yet to be answered by the courts.

        Theme dorms may allow students to self-segregate and, in doing so, some believe ethnic themed dorms violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[17] Title VI generally prohibits a person from being excluded or subjected to discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin under any federally funded program or activity.”[18] In order for theme dorms on college and university campuses to violate Title VI there must be proof that there is an exclusion or subjection of another to discrimination in having the option of living within a themed community that is funded by the federal government.[19] There has yet to be a case that has proven that a student has been excluded or discriminated against in the course of theme dorms being offered as housing options to students. Therefore, at this time, there can be no violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in allowing students to live in ethnic theme dorms.

        Despite the fact that there is little to no case law on the issue, theme dorms are bordering the line of just and unjust. While theme dorms do not exclude students, they can limit diversity within dorms on college and university campuses and encourage self-segregation within the housing community.[20] However, these limitations alone do not prove that ethnic theme dorms violate the Constitution in any way. Some students rebut critics’ arguments that ethnic theme dorms create self-segregation and instead claim that living in a theme dorm provides a sense of belonging.[21] A student at CSULA said, “You can go and be yourself and not have to worry about explaining how you’re doing [just] because of your skin color.”[22] It is common for people, especially those in the minority of their environment, to stick together and form groups as they create a space for themselves in which they find comfort, but this comfort may encourage self-segregation to take form.[23]





        Theme dorms that are specifically created and targeted towards people of color  do not violate the Constitution because the dorms merely create an optional living space in which students find comfort. Students are given the choice to apply to live in an environment that may appeal to their interests and experiences similarly to the choice students have in applying to a specific college or university such as a Historically Black College or University (“HBCU”).[24] HBCUs were established to provide people of color with educational options to obtain a higher education.[25] Even after the desegregation within the education community, HBCUs continue to be places that educate the majority of students of color.[26] Both ethnic theme dorms and HBCUs promote the education of people of color by providing environments that allow for students to be in a free space to learn from one another as well as a space where students can feel safe.   

        Ethnic designed theme dorms, like HBCUs, are not exclusive to people of color, and all who are interested can apply.[27] Unsurprisingly, although any student can apply to live in ethnic theme dorms and attend HBCUs, there still lays a chance that the majority of students who are interested in applying will be students of color. HBCUs such as Spellman College, Morehouse College, and Howard University, whose student body population is roughly 80% students of color continue to receive funds from the federal government which sends the message that even though the three campuses serve a specific group of people, it is not done in a way that excludes or discriminates against anyone.[28] Similarly, theme dorms targeted towards people of color are not excluding or subjecting anyone to discrimination, they are providing opportunities for students to learn from each other in a comfortable environment.

        Ethnic theme dorms provide students with the opportunity to explore other cultures of interests through programs that focus on scholarship, cultural history, and various points of view.[29] CSULA’s Halisi Scholars Black Living-Learning Community was created to provide a residential experience for students who are a part of the Black community who live on its campus or are interested in the concerns that Black students face by way of “offering the opportunity [for students] to connect with faculty and peers and engage in programs that focus on academic success, cultural awareness and civic engagement.”[30]

          Equal opportunity is given to all students who desire to live within theme dorms on college and university campuses in a similar way that students are provided equal opportunity to join student organizations on varies campuses. Cultural clubs, association and organizations such as Black Student Union (BSU), Latino Student Association (LSA), National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), and National Multicultural Greek Council (NMGC) are open to all students who are interested in obtaining membership just as ethnic dorms are open to all students who are interested in living in them. If cultural organizations that were created and targeted towards people of color are still be offered as organizations for students to join, then there should be little concern over a dorm that was created with the same premise.

Theme dorms such as CSULA’s Halisi Scholars Black Living-Learning Community are not the creation Black-only student housing. These living-learning communities are creating environments to provide its residents with an academic, cultural, or organizational experience that may not otherwise be received through mentorships, as well as community events that are open to all students.[31]




       The legal question of whether college and university theme dorms that are targeted towards people of color is a question of first impression and has yet to be decided by any court. As it stands now there is little that any college or university can be charge with in offering students the opportunity to live in a theme dorm. Skeptics of theme dorms should accept that colleges and universities are providing students with an opportunity to live within a community that they identify and have similar interest with. For now, there should be no doubt that theme dorms should be held to be legally sound.





Kandyce Hall is a 2L at Howard Law. She is originally from Southern California, and graduated from California State University, San Bernardino with a BA in Communications and a minor in Political Science. She is interested in Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law.

[1]See Mike McPhate, California Today: No, Cal State Isn’t Creating Segregated Housing, NY TIMES (Sept. 8, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/08/us/california-today-colleges-segregated-housing.html?_r=1; Matt Hamilton, Black-focused housing at Cal State L.A. draws criticism, but it’s nothing new, LA TIMES (Sept. 7, 2016, 3:00 AM), http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-housing-cal-state-la--20160906-snap-story.html.


[2] See Resident Life at Reed: Theme Communities, REED COLLEGE, http://www.reed.edu/res_life/residence-halls/theme-communities/index.html#language-houses (last visited Oct. 7, 2016). See Theme Housing, EMORY RESIDENCE LIFE AND HOUSING, https://www.emory.edu/HOUSING/UNDERGRAD/opt_theme.html (last visited Oct. 7, 2016); What is a living learning community, UCLA RESIDENT LIFE, https://reslife.ucla.edu/theme (last visited Oct. 7, 2016); Theme Programs, UC BERKELEY HOUSING, http://housing2.berkeley.edu/theme (last visited Oct. 7, 2016);


[3] Id.


[4] Id.


[5] Id.


[6] See Shirin Rajaee, Segregation or Sanctuary? Black-only University Housing Draw Criticism, CBS SACRAMENTO (Sept. 8, 2016, 1:00 AM), http://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2016/09/08/segregation-or-sanctuary-black-only-university-housing-draws-criticism(the article discusses the similarities of CSULA and UC Davis’s theme dorms).


[7] Hamilton, supra note 1; McPhate, supra note 1; see Shirin Rajaee, supra note 5.


[8] BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY, 677 (4th ed. 2011).


[9] Brown v. Bd. of Ed. of Topeka, Shawnee Cty., Kan., 347 U.S. 483, 486, 74 S. Ct. 686, 687, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), supplemented sub nom. Brown v. Bd. of Educ. of Topeka, Kan., 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083 (1955).


[10] Id.


[11] See Joe Gettinger, student note, Ethnic Dorms: A Double-Edged Sword, STANFORD REVIEW OPINION, OPINION FP BLOCK, VOLUME XLV, Issue 2 (Sept. 26, 2010), http://stanfordreview.org/article/ethnic-dorms-a-double-edged-sword.


[12] Id.


[13] McPhate, supra note 1.


[14] See Gettinger, supra note 10.


[15] See Lydia Lum, A Space of Their Own, DIVERSE EDUCATION (Dec. 11, 2008), http://diverseeducation.com/article/12054/.


[16] Id.


[17] Autumn A. Arnett, UConn’s black male learning community draw criticism: Confusion over group’s intent spurred a Civil Rights complaint, EDUC. DIVE (Mar. 23, 2016), http://www.educationdive.com/news/uconns-black-male-learning-community-draws-criticism/416137.


[18] Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act 42 U.S.C. § 2000d.


[19] Id.


[20] See McPhate, supra note 1; Hamilton, supra note 1; Rajaee, supra note 5; Gettinger, supra note 10.


[21] McPhate, supra note 1.


[22] Id.


[23] Meera E. Deo, Two Sides of a Coin: Safe Space & Segregation in Race/Ethnic-Specific Law Student Organizations, 42 WASH. U. J.L. & Pol'y 83, 105 (2013) (“It is a practical social thing that when there aren't so many members of a given racial group, there is a tendency to stick together and that becomes self-enforcing. Obviously you want your class mixed up together, but I can imagine if I was the only African-American person in the class or [one of] two African-American people, I might feel more comfortable hanging out with the other African-American in the class, but then that becomes a self-ruling prophecy. I always heard about that and I never saw it in college or high school to the extent that I see it here’’).


[24] Resident Life at Reed: Theme Communities, supra note 2; Theme Housing, supra note 3; What is a living learning community, supra note 2, Theme Programs, supra note 2. (students that are interested in applying to theme dorms can submit their application).


[25] What is an HBCU?, U.S. DEPT OF EDUC. WHITE HOUSE INITIATIVE ON HIST. BLACK C. & U., http://sites.ed.gov/whhbcu/one-hundred-and-five-historically-black-colleges-and-universities (last visited Oct. 7, 2016).


[26] See Morehouse Facts 2014, MOREHOUSE INSTITUTIONAL PROFILE REFERENCE GUIDE 1, 21 (2014), https://www.morehouse.edu/about/pdf/Morehouse-Facts-2014.pdf; Fact Book 2011: A Profile in Facts and Facts and figures, SPELLMAN COLLEGE 1, 9 (2011) http://www.spelman.edu/docs/oirap/fact-book-1112.pdf?sfvrsn=2; 2014 Howard Undergraduate Graduating Student Exist Survey, HOWARD UNIVERSITY 1, 6

https://www.howard.edu/assessment/documents/reports/Graduating%20Student%20Exit%20Survey-UG%202014.pdf (enrollment in HBCUs continue to be predominately people of color).


[27] Morehouse Facts 2014, supra note 25; Fact Book 2011: A Profile in Facts and Facts and figures, supra note 25; 2014 Howard Undergraduate Graduating Student Exist Survey, supra note 25 (past enrollment demonstrates that university provides enrollment many races not just people of color); See McPhate, supra note 1; but see Sean B. Seymore, Note, I'm Confused: How Can the Federal Government Promote Diversity in Higher Education Yet Continue to Strengthen Historically Black Colleges, 12 WASH. & LEE J. CIVIL RTS. & SOC. JUST. 287 (2006).


[28] See Seymore, supra note 26.


[29] Lum, supra note 15.


[30] Themed Living Communities, Cal State Univ. LA. (last visited Oct 7, 2016) http://edit.calstatelas.edu/housing/themed-living-communities.


[31] Lum, supra note 15.









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