USC’s Black House Proposal Raises Questions About Racial Tensions

Jerome Campbell and Jason Song, Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2015

When some USC student government leaders voiced support for creating a cultural house for black students, Ama Amoafo-Yeboah thought that she and other undergraduates were closer to having a space where they could hang out and hold events.

But before a vote was held, word spread that the house could be located on the Row, USC’s two-block stretch of fraternities and sororities near 28th and Figueroa streets. Social media lit up.

“Why would they open a prison on the Row?” one user asked on Yik Yak, a popular social media app that allows anonymous comments from users within a 1.5-mile radius.

Student leaders passed a resolution on the house in late October. But Amoafo-Yeboah said the onslaught reinforced her sense that black students aren’t always welcome at USC. That feeling of exclusion, she said, is especially obvious on the Row, the heart of the undergraduate social scene–which seems to be made of mostly white students, along with some Asians and a smattering of other minorities.

“The fact is, they don’t want people like us,” Amoafo-Yeboah said. “They just don’t.”

Rini Sampath, USC’s student body president-elect, said she was disheartened by the online comments, even if it wasn’t clear that a student wrote them. “It showed that there’s a mindset about this school that we have to eradicate,” she said. “It showed me that we need a space where students who feel like they’re marginalized feel comfortable.”

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Two years ago, USC students held protests after police wearing protective gear broke up an off-campus party and arrested six people. Most of the partygoers were black, and some accused the police of racial profiling.

And in 2012, security was increased on campus after a Halloween party shooting, in which a black man fired into a crowd and injured four. Some black students said they felt less welcome at social events after the incident, even though the gunman was not a student.

“While USC is probably as inclusive as any predominantly white campus, beneath that surface is an ongoing tension and very real issues of race,” said Melina Abdullah, who graduated from the university in 2002, taught there in 2008 and is now the chair of Pan-African Studies at Cal State L.A.

Abdullah said that most other schools’ cultural centers are in academic or more residential settings, and that the USC project could be unique if it ends up in the midst of the Trojan party scene.

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Student supporters said the proposal, which became known as the Black House, was modeled after programs at schools such as Stanford, Georgetown and Yale universities. It would not be residential, and no alcohol would be allowed inside. Instead, the building is supposed to be a space where students can relax, hold cultural events and display some of the history of African Americans at USC.

The house would not be affiliated with undergraduate black Greek organizations, which are not on the Row. Overall, about 4,200 USC students are fraternity or sorority members. It is unclear how many Greek members are minorities, school officials said.

Of USC’s nearly 19,000 undergraduates, about 720–or 4%–are black, according to the school. {snip}

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The Black House’s student organizers are trying to raise up to $8 million within the next several years. Although many see the Row as an ideal location, buying there may not be easy. Most of the properties on the Row are owned by national Greek organizations that may be reluctant to sell real estate in what they consider a prime location.

Amoafo-Yeboah said she was ambivalent about where the building should be, but that the Row would be a powerful statement. “Nobody will be able to ignore us,” she said. “We will be in the heart of the social scene, for better or for worse.”

Others are more wary, saying that putting the Black House there might only raise tensions. “It would be perpetually toxic,” said Levi Powell, a senior who is half black and half Filipino. He helped work on the student government resolution.

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