George Yancey has been an important voice on diversity within American Christianity. In addition to authoring several books, the University of North Texas sociologist is cofounder of the Mosaix Network, a relational association that promotes multiethnic churches and interactions between ethnically diverse churches. Yancey’s most recent book, Neither Jew Nor Gentile, is an academic exploration of racial and ethnic diversity on Protestant campuses. Urban Faith contributor Joshua Canada talked to Yancey about his work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: You have written a number of books about diversity. What was your motivation for writing about colleges and universities?
GEORGE YANCEY: As I worked with different churches that wanted to become more racially diverse, I noticed that they had a hard time finding pastoral and lay leaders. I realized that part of the problem was that the people they were seeking as leaders tended to come from racially homogenous colleges and universities. I wanted to study Christian colleges and universities to see how they can do a better job preparing students for a multiracial world.
You divide your findings between Conservative and Mainline institutions. What similarities and differences did you find?
Generally, conservative Protestant churches are more evangelical and more willing to make cultural adjustments to incorporate people of different races but are blinder to the power dynamics of race relations. The opposite is true about Mainline denominations in that they are more set in their worship traditions, but more aware of racial dynamics of power. … Mainline colleges and universities are more likely to utilize diversity programs than Conservative colleges and universities
You wrote that multicultural programming is not always the most effective way to promote diversity. When is programming effective?
I suspect that programming that just dictates to students what they should believe is unlikely to be effective. On the other hand, programming that encourages open dialogue and produces knowledge is likely to be effective.
How did students respond to multicultural programming?
A lot of the time, students did not even know about that programing. The most popular response was to ignore it. Other students became aware of the multicultural programming, but resented it as they thought that it just made people angry. These students had a colorblind perspective. Some students benefited from the programs since it brought them more awareness and knowledge, but most did not. White students tended to be more receptive to diversity classes compared to others’ efforts. … White students are also pretty receptive to professors of color.
Previous research has shown that faculty-student interaction plays an important role in the development of college students’ views on diversity and multiculturalism. What did you find?
Interaction seemed especially important to White students. They were more likely to alter their racial perspective due to interaction with professors. For students of color, this interaction was at times an important way for them to gain reinforcement. But they did not tend to change their past racial perspectives due to such interactions.
Did you find it to be true that Black students have a particularly difficult time persisting at predominantly-White institutions?
There appears to be little that can be done to recruit Black students relative to other minority groups. They are retained with many of the similar measures of other students of color and perhaps in the long-run that will aid in recruitment. But short-term recruitment is difficult for Black students. They are also more likely to attend Protestant colleges to participate in athletics and less likely to come to the colleges for spiritual reasons. It may be that culturally Blacks define Christian spirituality differently than those of other races.
As a whole, what were some of the most significant difficulties ethnic-minority students at predominately-White institutions faced?
If ethnic-minorities are racialized, then they often have a difficult cultural adjustment. They also are aware of the White-nonWhite power dynamics and want to be heard. The lack of professors of color also means a lack of role models and opportunities to gain mentoring.
What can Protestant institutions do to cultivate a healthy environment for ethnic-minority students?
The biggest thing they can do is recruit more professors of color and start academic programs that produce more diversity courses. The latter may be easier than the former since people of color are underrepresented in academia. I would also encourage them to support student led multicultural organizations as long as those organizations are focused on bringing people together.
What role does an institution’s Christian faith play into the institution’s pursuit of diversity?
Christian faith could aid in diversity pursuits, but only if that faith is interpreted in a way that includes different Christian cultures. A narrow and culturally bounded interpretation of that faith will scare away people who are not of that racially-based cultural tradition.
How can ethnic-minority organizations support their students at predominately-White Protestant institutions?
They can provide a place where these students can get back in touch with their cultural and often spiritual roots. They must be careful not to be too exclusive since more students today are developing friends across the racial spectrum. However, they can be places of refuge if they remember to encourage the student to go back out into a multiracial world after they have gotten their rest
What will be the impact of more diverse Protestant institutions on American Christianity and why is this necessary?
First, we will have a better witness as Christians. Having more diverse Protestant colleges and universities will help to remove the stigma of Christianity being only a “White man’s” religion.
Second, we will have leaders better trained for a multiracial world. Christians can
Finally, students will have a better overall college experience. There is a good amount of work suggesting that exposure to different racial groups is correlated with a number of positive outcomes, for example better problem-solving abilities. We should want our students to gain these positive benefits as well.