In October, American University announced in its spring 2021 plan that students would have the option to apply for a temporary residential housing experience for half the semester. This program would welcome 1,250 full-time students to reside on campus from March to May 2021 in addition to the students already on campus for emergency housing, bringing the residential total to more than 1,500. The anticipated minimum cost for this experience, which includes housing, dining and health insurance, would be approximately $5,205.
While this brings excitement to many students who’ve been deprived of a proper freshman experience, it leaves me to question: Who does this plan really benefit? Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 15,000 lives were lost in the DMV and 75 percent of lives lost in D.C. were Black citizens. Though Black citizens in D.C. often suffered more than white citizens during national economic downfalls, the pandemic has magnified and worsened the existing racial inequalities in the city, such as food insecurity and lack of access to healthcare.
The large influx of predominantly affluent white students into D.C.’s “chocolate city,” a term that refers to its large population of Black citizens, could evoke similar effects of settler colonialism and negatively impact the community. Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism that replaces the original population with a new invasive species. The settler system takes over the space, resources and culture of the environment it encompasses, displacing the original population. Through the Mid-Semester Residential Experience, students are entering into populations that are already struggling to support themselves through the pandemic.
Additionally, there is a large unhoused population in D.C. that is directly affected by large presences entering into the city. For instance, when 5,000 National Guardsmen were deployed to the nation’s capital to prepare for the presidential inauguration, many who weren’t tested, it brought an increase of 200 new cases. Being already vulnerable to the pandemic, the rise of outside influences coming into the District would have a grave impact on the D.C. population, especially given the chance that freshmen will not always abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
When students like Katherine Greenstein, Ali Siddiqi and Nicole Donelan expressed that they don't favor the University’s decision, they were met with negative reactions from their peers.
“Medical racism is real, and there is no doubt that involving privileged, mostly white students who are very likely to survive COVID-19 if they get it, will harm the people already living in D.C.,” said Greenstein, a soon-to-be D.C. resident, “and considering how medical racism had generated a system where Black folks are ... more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to white folks, I have no doubt that this will enforce settler colonialism and create mass harm to Black people living in D.C.”
“The primary enforcers of social distancing are other AU students, and outside of campus there really isn’t anyone who can stop students from congregating without masks,” said Donelan, a first-year student. “Even prior to the mini-mester, AU students have ignored CDC guidelines to party.”
On a similar note, Siddiqi had also shared his concerns with the actions of his classmates.
“You’re going to see a lot of people exhibiting their privilege,” he said. “For instance, you see AU students who already moved to D.C. taking selfies with the National Guard as if it were a joke and posting it on social media.”
The coronavirus pandemic is just as much an issue of racial justice as it is of public health, and it seems hypocritical of students and the administration to advocate for Black lives yet place them further at risk with this initiative. A number of students are likely not planning to give back to the communities that they reside in and will buy out stock at stores and malls, making the resources in those communities limited. The rash behavior stems from growing tired of living at home and acting out in rebellion due to this newfound freedom.
“I’m terrified that one reckless AU student could get me in a hospital on a ventilator at the end of this year,” Greenstein said. “I could not imagine the fear of at-risk people, especially those who experience medical racism and discrimination in medicine, watching AU students flood to campus and in apartments around the city, potentially spreading COVID to hundreds of people. I’m terrified of fall and I just know that things won’t end well with the mini-mester.”
Kayla Kelly is a freshman in the School of Public Affairs and an opinion staff columnist for The Eagle.