News & Politics

Why the Columbia 'Segregated Graduations' Story Isn't the Outrage Many Are Making It Out to Be

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

When I first heard about Columbia University’s “segregated graduations,” I immediately thought it was just one more example of the woke segregation too often championed by proponents of Marxist critical race theory. After all, black students at New York University recently demanded segregated housing — although the university didn’t agree. Separate graduations for different identity groups seems horrifyingly plausible these days.

On further investigation, however, I found that the story wasn’t quite the outrage I thought it was. Columbia University had simply used unclear language that left the wrong impression about its graduation events.

Fox News reported that Columbia University’s undergraduate colleges would host no fewer than six separate graduation ceremonies based on race, class, and LGBT identity. Fox reached out to the university for comment, but the university did not respond by press time.

After Fox News’ story went viral, however, Columbia finally deigned to clarify the situation.

“Reports today and previous tweets misrepresent our multicultural graduation celebrations, which exist in addition to, not instead of, University-wide commencement and individual school Class Days,” Columbia University clarified on Twitter. “These events are important, intimate and welcoming spaces for students aligned with these groups to come together to celebrate their achievements if they wish. They are organized in tandem with students and student groups.”

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Columbia explained that “these celebrations evolved from ceremonies originally created by students and alumni. They are open to every student. They are voluntary. And they have become a highly anticipated and valuable part of the Columbia graduation experience.”

In a statement to PJ Media, a Columbia spokesperson clarified the situation further.

“Columbia marks graduation every spring with a university-wide Commencement ceremony and Class Days for the graduates of each of our schools. These events bringing together all of our graduates and their families are a high point of every academic year,” the spokesperson said. “The smaller celebratory events held for particular communities are in addition to, not instead of, the main Commencement and Class Day graduation ceremonies.”

The spokesperson repeated the statement from Columbia’s Twitter thread, noting that “in most instances, these smaller, multicultural gatherings evolved from ceremonies originally created by alumni and students. The gatherings are voluntary, open to every student who wants to participate, and have become a highly anticipated and meaningful part of the Columbia graduation experience.”

To be fair to Fox News, Columbia University’s website fostered this misconception by referring to the celebrations as “graduations.” A page entitled “Multicultural Graduation Ceremonies: Graduate Registration” lists these events:

  • Native Graduation: Sunday, April 25 at 4:00 p.m. EDT
  • Lavender Graduation (LGBTQIA+ community): Monday, April 26 at 4:00 p.m. EDT
  • Asian Graduation: Tuesday, April 27 at 10:00 a.m. EDT
  • FLI Graduation (First-generation and/or low income community): Tuesday, April 27 at 7:00 p.m. EDT
  • Latinx Graduation: Thursday, April 29 at 6:00 p.m. EDT
  • Black Graduation: Friday, April 30 at 4:00 p.m. EDT

That page is also the first result for a search for “graduation” on Columbia’s website. Only a deeper dive on the website would allow the casual browser access to “Class Day” pages with information on the main graduation ceremony for each college.

Confusion about these events allowed conservatives to explain the threats of Marxist critical race theory.

“The endpoint of critical race theory: segregation,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) argued while sharing the Fox News story on Twitter. “Critical race theory is the belief that people have value based on the color of their skin, and that our race defines everything about us. It’s not just false—it’s dangerous.”

Candace Owens tweeted mock congratulations to “liberals and Columbia University for successfully bringing segregation back by packaging it as ‘diversity inclusion’. Just one question: which ceremony do bi-racial children attend?”

Critical race theory and “woke” discrimination are real threats in education and American society more generally. However, that does not mean that Columbia’s six identity-themed voluntary celebrations are the outrage they first appeared to be.

It makes sense for students of different races, classes, and identities to celebrate graduation together and to invite others to celebrate with them. These events are more separate celebrations for the identities of different student groups, not segregated graduation ceremonies.

Americans must be careful not to rush to conclusions or to assume the worst about people who disagree with our values. Conservatives should breathe a sigh of relief that Columbia University is not engaging in the kind of “woke” segregation we rightly abhor, even if the university is pushing critical theory in other ways.

Today’s world truly is insane in many ways, but occasionally, it’s more sane than it first appears. Thank God for that.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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