Racial and ethnic diversity is increasing on campus. A March 10, 2008, article in the i>Washington Post projects that minority populations on U.S. college and university campuses will grow from 30 percent three years ago to 37 percent by 2015.
InterVarsity has multiethnic chapters and ethnic specific chapters on many campuses. Currently 29 percent of our active students define themselves as minority or multiethnic. Ethnic reconciliation and justice are long held core values. But InterVarsity’s campus staff members are noticing that student attitudes on race are also changing.
Joshua Settles, InterVarsity’s area director in Tennessee, remembers that students were more engaged in efforts to work for racial reconciliation in the past. “Now there’s not as much conversation explicitly about racial reconciliation,” he says. “Around campus, more students are interacting cross-racially, but for the most part folks hang out with their own kind of people. The division among students is just as large as it was before.”
“College students today aren’t asking the same questions about race, or even using the same paradigms about race as their parents are,” says Paula Fuller, InterVarsity’s vice president and Director of Multiethnic Ministries. “This generation has essentially been raised with diversity training and cross-cultural awareness. So to some degree there’s no sense that race is still a problem.”
It’s not that students are totally oblivious to racial issues. But for many students it’s one issue among many. “Students tend to be more excited about combining the issues of race, justice, and evangelism,” she says.
In some respects a growing comfort level with increased diversity is a positive change. However, it seems to have led to complacency rather than an increased resolve to address racial disparities. “Students are losing the language they need to have this type of conversation,” says Joshua Settles. He sees the conversations about race issues being more superficial today, lacking the depth that they used to have.
“What happens is that if we don’t address these issues, students are thinking this is not a problem,” says Orlando Crespo, director of La Fe, InterVarsity’s Latino ministry. “Yet it keeps sprouting up. You know it’s there. And students are at a loss on how to address it.”
Orlando believes it’s important to give students permission to engage racial issues and also to give them the terms to engage in the dialogue, in a way that affirms their own culture and ethnicity, even if they’re from a European background. He said a Latino culture night that included salsa lessons and ethnic food was a good starting point for dialogue at Rutgers University several years ago.
Sabrina Chan, an area director in central Texas and a seven year veteran of ministry at the University of Texas, says that many second generation Asian American students have been encouraged by their parents to apply themselves and blend in with other students. So they are not used to addressing racial differences.
InterVarsity staff are always looking for teachable moments to encourage the discussion of racial issues. “When we made space to talk about it, there were a lot of stories people had about their experiences growing up Asian-American or about their inter-ethnic experiences,” she says. “Then students realized that they had a lot to talk about.”
“The need to keep addressing the issue of racial reconciliation continues,” says Paul Sorrentino, who has directed Amherst College’s multiethnic InterVarsity fellowship for 14 years. “The greatest divide in our culture, the greatest inequities in our culture still tend to be around race,” he says. “People don’t outwardly exhibit racist tendencies as much as in the past, but neither are they actively fighting against the ways people are disadvantaged.”
Issues such as race, justice, and evangelism are typically addressed in InterVarsity’s urban projects. Urban projects director Randy White agrees the civil rights language of the previous generation doesn’t resonate as well with today’s college students. So he doesn’t use the term racial reconciliation any more. Instead he favors the concept of racial solidarity.
“It’s not enough for me to say I have a black friend or a Latino friend, or an Asian friend, or a native American friend,” he says. “If I’m not ultimately committed to shaping the forces that are shaping my friend’s life unfairly or unjustly, than what kind of a friend am I? How much do I stand with my friend who is being treated differently because of their race?”
Orlando Crespo believes urban projects are one of the best tools that InterVarsity has because students covenant together to face up to hard realities. “Reconciliation is hard, talking about issues of race is hard,” he says. “But in the context of community there’s love, there’s forgiveness, which is the Christian way.”
InterVarsity’s ministry focus is on the campus because colleges and universities are the fulcrum for changing society. We believe that racial and ethnic dialogue should not only be addressed on campus for its inherent justice issues, but also because when we share deeply held beliefs we have the opportunity to share our transforming faith in Jesus Christ.
Erick Klouse, an InterVarsity staff member in downstate Illinois gave this testimony at staff conference 2008, about a talk he gave at the University of Illinois.
You can make a direct financial donation to support InterVarsity’s multiethnic ministry by following this link.