When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education by Julie J. Park. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

December, 2013

 

The book cover depicts an inverted triangle of multi-colored, paper doll-like figures standing hand-to-hand.  As the reader views the successive rows of figures, the multi-colors become more homogenous until the reader views the bottom row in which one figure is a different color amongst a row of others of the same color.  This visual representation acutely captures the essence of this book. What happens on college campuses when diversity decreases and how does this affect the diversification of student organization.  Julie Park conducted this research in a California institution that she called CU.  The author was specifically interested in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) and its intentional agenda of race consciousness and race reconciliation.

As stated in the book, the purpose of IVCF was to racially diversify its student organization through programming that focused on the evangelical faith.  The evangelical faith was defined by the commonalities of scripture and adherence to biblical authority, an emphasis on sharing one's faith through evangelism, the belief in the need of personal conversation, and an emphasis on Christ's death on the cross and belief that salvation comes through faith alone.  Embedded in the evangelism was an emphasis on race reconciliation which was defined as people of different races forging relationships based on repentance, forgiveness, justice, and love to address, heal, and redeem the effects of personal and systemic race-based sin.

The IVCF was up to the challenge of recruiting Christian students of color to the membership through the agenda of racial reconciliation in which they were not colorblind, but color conscious in which they isolate race so that they could have meaningful conversation that they called Race Matters.  During these sessions, the multi-racial audiences of white, black, Latino, and Asian students spoke candidly and viscerally about how they navigated race through the common lens of Christian evangelism.  They thought that the commonality of Christian evangelism enabled them to speak their truths in an arena of support and understanding.  What they discovered is that their Christian beliefs did not swaddle them from the intensity of racial issues that divide, marginalize, and oppress.  They realized that the conversations did not necessarily heal, but created more tension.  Their Christian faith did enable them to endure and to experience the discomfort even though these conversations did not lead to closure or solution.  They did discover that even though the Race Matters conversations were confrontational and vivid, the Christian environment was a better place to have these conversations as opposed to the classrooms.  The students of color felt safe in these environments in which the facilitators were of Christian faith and the intent was to do no harm even if the conversations were difficult.  The classroom typically avoided the salient roots of oppression and often the professors did not have the skill sets necessary to orchestrate conversations about race that did not erupt into guilt and blame.  Because the professors could not handle the conflict, these critical race conscious conversations were typically ignored. Because the classrooms were not engaging in race-based dialogs, the wider campus existed in a bubble of colorblindness in which many simply believed that race did not matter. The general thought was to celebrate commonalities instead of embrace diversity.

Julie Park's book is a case study that captures what happened when affirmative action policies negated the diversity on campus.  The premise is that due to affirmative action negation, the number of students of color on campus decreased; therefore, the number of students of color in IVCF also decreased.  The richness of the race reconciliation program in IVCF was based on having a critical mass of students of color.  When the number of students of color decreased on campus, the remaining students of color felt even more marginalized.  When this happened, the students of color were more compelled to congregate in affinity groups to honor their faith and discuss their own racial needs.  The ethnic-specific groups such as the Black Student Ministries (BSM) outpaced the integrated IVCF.  Students found more solace in the racial affinity groups as opposed to being a minority in the IVCF.  This created difficulty within the IVCF because the racial reconciliation agenda could not be met without a diverse attendance.

Another concern was that the majority of students in this case as outlined by the author were of Asian descent.  The Asian students outnumbered the white students in IVCF. This configuration created tension with the other students of color because they felt that they were marginalized within a minority culture.  The author deconstructed this phenomena in the chapter "When a Minority is the Majority."  What she found was that Asian students became the dominant culture because they set the norms for interactions.  For instance, a Latino student revealed his discomfort with IVCF because the events were based on Asian cultural social events such as going to Asian restaurants, participating in activities that were of Asian origin, and being an outsider to cultural jokes and nomenclature.  The Asian students did not realize that some students did not view going out to dinner as a social imperative because in many cases these types of gatherings were not affordable.  The Asian majority soon realized that what they considered culturally-authentic practices were supportive of their race, but exclusive of others.  They thought that since they were a minority group, they were automatically inclusive of all students of color.  The author pointed out that just because a person may be a person of color does not automatically grant the person cultural competency around all aspects of diversity.  This is partially due to the normalization that students of color naturally inherit from the cultural traits of the dominant culture.

This book was very insightful because it amplified the difficulty of diversifying student groups even when the agenda of race consciousness and race reconciliation was purposeful.  An intentional conversation about critical race issues has diminished traction when the wider campus diversity is lessened.  The case also showed how it was necessary to integrate the ethnic-specific ministry groups in the wider IVCF in order to maintain racial diversity.  IVCF continued its Race Matters conversation and found that millennial students were not as engaged as the students from the 1990s.  The onset of social media and global perspectives made millennials less in need of face-to-face diversity because they are LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter connected to friends across the globe.  These virtual friends versus visceral friends may shape students'  awareness of different cultures, but they lack the face-to-face skills to interact with people who are different from them.

This book is very necessary for those who are interested in campus-based diversity issues.  Another specific audience for this book are those who work in student affairs, especially those who are in charge of residential life and student organizations.  The author made a compelling case for diversifying student organization on campuses with limited diversity.  Student organizations are places where students can better discuss critical issues around race because they get to self-navigate and self-orchestrate these discussions.  Even though they may not get it right, they can be persistent within their own student organization because this is a place of comfort and support.  It is imperative that Christian organizations continue these engagements because in many cases these are the only arenas on campus where these interactive, integrated dialogues can take place.

Dr. Dwight C. Watson, Dean
College of Education
University of Northern Iowa