When Diversity Drops: Book Review

Park, Julie J. 2013. When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

By: Jerry Park (Baylor University)


In 1998, the state of California’s Proposition 209 struck down affirmative action as a policy to effect greater inclusion of racial minorities in higher education. At a time when non-white racial minorities were growing, particularly among younger cohorts, this new legislation would have a devastating impact on enrollment diversity at the state’s most prestigious public universities. How did student groups respond to this change and the paradoxical call for greater inclusion of all minorities in higher education?

Julie J. Park’s When Diversity Drops investigates this question by chronicling the events that took place in an evangelical Protestant student group at one of the major California public universities in the mid-2000s, roughly 6-8 years from the passage of Proposition 209 (we might call this the post-9/11 and pre-Obama era). Specifically, Park’s examination focused on the consequences of decreasing racial diversity for the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) at a public university in southern California (hereafter CU). During the period of her investigation, the state of California’s African American population held steady at about 7.5 percent while the Asian American population increased from 12 to 13.5 percent. This is significant because Park showed that CU’s African American enrollment decreased from 7 percent down to 4 percent after Prop. 209, while the Asian American rate held steady at about 38 percent, over twice the proportional presence of Asian Americans in the state. Moreover, IVCF-CU saw its Asian American population fluctuate between 50 and 60 percent of the entire group’s membership during this period. By contrast, African American student participation steadily dwindled from 10 percent to less than 5 by the end of her study. In other words, as the social unit of analysis gets smaller from state to public university to student group, the presence of Asian Americans gets larger, while the presence of African Americans gets smaller. IVCF-CU was an interesting case where Asian Americans held the dominant numerical presence during a time when Proposition 209 saw a significant decline in African Americans present at that same university, and in the organization itself. This precipitous decline of African American participation in IVCF-CU somewhat mirrored the decreasing enrollment levels of African Americans, but it does not explain all of it. Apart from this demographic shift due to a statewide change in policy, what consequences did it hold for this religious student group?

To answer that, Park introduces the reader to the culture of American evangelicalism in the early 21st century. Within the predominantly white evangelical Protestant subculture of the 1990s, particularly the Promise Keepers men’s movement, “racial reconciliation” was an important theme. This theme extended into student group ministries like IVCF, and was codified through repeated discussions on the theme of racial group relations called “Race Matters.” As Park shows, IVCF-CU tried very hard to sustain awareness of racial inequality and social distance using the logic that intergroup relationships will lead to greater racial equality (a cultural schema first described by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith over a decade ago). According to this schema, social distance is reduced and the attendant prejudices that come from lack of contact are also reduced by encouraging friendships across racial lines. This is often couched in the language of reconciliation. Individuals and groups misunderstand one another, are ignorant of systemic racial injustices which result in alienation of different groups. Acknowledging these errors in awareness and prejudgment is key to establishing greater ties between members of all races.

The members of IVCF-CU faced a significant uphill battle given the declining enrollment of African Americans and Latinos. Recall that the majority racial group at IVCF-CU was Asian American, not white. While most of the evangelical subculture emphasized the importance of dialogue and friendship between whites and blacks, there was no social blueprint for Asian Americans, especially if they were in the majority, as was the case in this local IVCF chapter. As Park and others have shown, the available strategy that many Asian American evangelicals use is the logic of white evangelicals in fostering greater inclusivity toward minorities and mutual respect. This is largely the result of limited numbers of researchers and teachers of color in evangelical training organizations such as seminaries. What ensued at IVCF-CU was a mixed bag of improved racial relations with the shrinking numbers of African Americans and Latinos alongside the Asian American majority, and increased tensions. Park’s evidence included careful detail of key events (Race Matters forums, racial identity awareness-raising Bible studies) as well as the taken-for-granted cultural messages in everyday group life.

Given the limited literature on diverse student organizations, Park drew her theoretical perspective from the growing research on a type of religious organization that shares similar cultural dynamics as IVCF-CU, the multiracial church. As research on multiracial churches shows, it’s very difficult to sustain a balance of multiple racial groups in an organization, and very often it is the case that one group gradually becomes numerically dominant, and eventually the organization ceases to be multiracial (typically if the majority group reflects more than 80 percent of the membership, it is no longer multiracial). IVCF-CU faced this very predicament with respect to the Asian American members. Not surprisingly the non-Asian minorities gradually felt more and more alienated by the cultural assumptions evident in the seemingly innocuous decisions made on weekly events and outings. As the Asian American students dominated the culture of the group, their tastes became the norm for the group as a whole. We might vaguely describe this as a kind of localized Asian American privilege. These preferences were viewed as “pro-Asian” by the non-Asian members of the group; from their viewpoint, “mainstream” restaurants and entertainment venues would be preferable since these were coded as racially neutral (when in reality they were largely white). This is a fascinating illustration of white privilege in that marginalized minorities would prefer cultural consumption coded white even when the dominant group is not white. Put together, in the context of this student-led religious organization, when a racial minority group was dominant, they exercised racial privilege rather than consciously reject it. The other minority students responded by preferring racially coded white culture rather than producing a more racially inclusive culture. In a sense the experience of minority group privilege can reinforce white privilege in the absence of a better alternative. This in turn reveals something of the unconscious awareness of a racial hierarchy in the minds of young people, despite the racial diversity of their peers. Park’s observations reveal the persistence of minority status, and the challenges faced by a minority group that can dictate the norms of a group whose aim is to be inclusive.

Like any good ethnography, we are left wanting to know more. Unanswered in Park’s analysis is the degree of awareness of the effects of Proposition 209 and general racialized social inequality among IVCF-CU members. To what extent are students aware that their entering class’s racial composition is a function of systemic inequalities in higher education that trace back several decades (and centuries of systemic multi-institutional discrimination)? We can surmise that most of the students, particularly the Asian Americans, knew very little, based on their resistance to discussions in the Race Matters forums developed by IVCF-CU staff. This suggests too the need for research on how pre-college teens and children interpret the racial coupling of wealth and poverty they observe around them in the absence of any education of systemic discrimination in their formal schooling. Notably, the students that Park observed were about age 6 when the Los Angeles Riots took place, and about 12 when Proposition 209 passed. How many of these interviewees would know how to make sense of these events and connect it to systemic racialized inequalities? For that matter would they know how these inequities result in the racial composition they see on campus?

We are also left wondering about the future of IVCF-CU. At the end of the work, Park leaves us at yet another transition point when CU decides to create racial minority themed dorms for African American and Latino students which IVCF capitalizes on by reinstating Black Student Ministries and La Fe (the Latino-themed Bible Study group) through dorm-specific Bible studies. Was structural awareness more evident in the minds of the students when the university develops this initiative, and how did it affect the efforts of Intervarsity at CU in raising Christian students’ consciences?

In addition, we know that Islam is just as racially diverse as Christianity, and findings from the Pew Muslim Surveys suggest that this is the case in the U.S. context as well. The main difference of course is that Islam is a minority religion in the U.S.; believers cannot be picky in their congregational participation. Thus racial diversity is more the norm for American Muslims. How aware are Muslim American students to the structured patterns of racism in the U.S. particularly against African Americans and Latinos? How then might a Muslim Student Association on a campus like CU address racial discrimination and are their solutions drawn similarly from their religious cultural toolkit?

The power of ethnography is its ability to bring readers into a world that they cannot access due to permanent factors like time and location, or somewhat temporal factors like cultural, ideological, and network differences. For these reasons a good ethnography helps the reader transcend these barriers and become immersed in a world that is at once familiar and strange. Julie Park’s When Diversity Drops meets the challenge of good ethnography and illuminates the realities of selective diversity on a college campus.

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