A powerful spoken word piece that has been trending on social media laments the lack of Black males enrolled at UCLA due to Proposition 209, the statewide ban on affirmative action in higher education. The piece gives a human face to a problem that can feel abstract and distant from everyday life. While numbers and statistics are compelling, hearing the urgency in the students' voices and being able to see the faces of the men was highly moving.
The piece is especially meaningful to me because I studied the low enrollment of Black students at an institution in the University of California (UC) system for my book on the effects of Proposition 209, When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education. One day while doing research for the book, I interviewed a Black male who had graduated from a UC institution over lunch. He waved to a friend who passed by and off-handedly commented that they knew each other because they were among the few Black males in their class who were not student-athletes. I still remember how my stomach dropped as the full meaning of his comment sunk in. That feeling returned as I watched the spoken word piece and the outcry over how UCLA's NCAA titles outnumber its Black male freshmen.
When Diversity Drops examines how the demographic conditions of a UC institution pre and post-Proposition 209 shaped the ability of students to build and sustain a racially diverse student subculture. Religion is a strange setting in which to think about affirmative action, but I found the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at "California University" (CU) to be a rich natural experiment to understand how the erosion of Black enrollment at CU affected students' ability to sustain racially diverse communities on campus. IVCF existed at CU as a predominantly White evangelical campus fellowship from the 1940s to the early 1990s. Starting in the early 1990s, IVCF began to take intentional steps to diversify, living out a vision around what they called "racial reconciliation," a Christian framing of positive race relations. By the late 1990s, IVCF had become a notably more diverse organization, a change that was particularly noteworthy given the general racial divides within evangelical communities. (Hence the saying, "Sunday is the most segregated time of the week.")
However, over time, IVCF found it harder and harder to sustain that diversity, given the drop in Black enrollment at CU. There were numerous social forces affecting the community, but in the end, the low Black enrollment at CU affected not just the availability of Black students who could potentially join IVCF, but the willingness of Black students to spend their free time in a multiracial community like IVCF. After spending most of their day as one of few Black students in their classes or residence halls, they needed space and time to recharge with peers of the same race. Scholar William Smith uses the term "racial battle fatigue" to explain the cumulative, day-to-day strain that Black students and other marginalized groups experience as minorities in the campus environment.
Another reason why the low enrollment of Black students at CU and other institutions is a problem is because a lack of racial diversity undermines efforts to foster relative equal status among students. Psychologist Gordon Allport's "contact theory" outlines how certain conditions are needed to support healthy intergroup contact such as interracial interaction. Among the conditions are institutional support, the pursuit of common goals, and relative equal status. My work on IVCF documents how the low numbers of Black students at CU undermined their ability to share "equal status" with their White and East Asian American peers: The numbers were nowhere near parity. The disparities between the groups and their ability to feel at home at CU were pronounced.
Racial diversity in the demography of a student body is a necessary but insufficient condition for healthy campus climate diversity. Still, fundamental racial heterogeneity in a student body sets the stage for engagement with diversity and difference during college, which is linked to a range of educational and civic benefits. The young Black men of UCLA have done us a valuable service in reminding us of the pain and frustration that students encounter when institutions lack racial diversity. Will institutions be able to rise to the challenge?
Julie J. Park (Ph.D., UCLA '09) is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education (Rutgers University Press). She thanks Jonathan Wang (B.A., UCLA '03) for his editorial assistance.