Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Freshmen (NLSF), Julie Park, an educationalist at the University of Maryland, has investigated how inter-racial friendships and religious affiliation interact. The NLSF was an annual survey of White, Black, Latino, and Asian American students from 28 selective institutions that ran from 1999 to 2004.
During their fourth year of college, students were asked to “think of the four people at [your college] with whom you have been closest during your college years.” They were also asked to list the race/ethnicity of each of the friends.
What she found was that the most religious students (based on self-reported religiosity, their frequency of religious service attendance, and their religious observance) also had the fewest friends from other races.
What’s more, Protestant or Jewish (but not Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist) students also had the fewest mixed-race friendships. That’s probably because these are the two major religious groups.
These two effects were independent – so the most mono-cultural people were the most religious Protestants and Jews. This held even after controlling for a bunch of other factors, including the racial diversity of the college, the diversity of their previous school, and the race of the student.
And on top of all this, belonging to a religious club reduced the chances of inter-racial friendship still further! That wasn’t the case with other clubs (except explicitly ethnic clubs – and even here the effect was smaller than for religious clubs).
Now, the interesting thing about these three factors – religiosity, religious denomination, and membership of a religious club – is that they weren’t highly correlated. That means that they seem to have independent, additive effects. Park concludes that:
While all of these dimensions certainly overlap and are difficult to disentangle, there are likely distinct facets of each one that may contribute to a student being less likely to form close interracial friendships during college … It appears that there is no single reason why religion appears to lower the probability of interracial friendship during college, but a combination of affiliation, involvement, and specific involvement in religious peer environments lowers the likelihood of close interracial friendship.
Park has a positive message for university administrators. While the linkage between racial division and religion is problematic, it reflects wider society – and so there is an opportunity here for universities to break the cycle:
University educators are in a prime position to challenge students to harness the elements of religion that “unmake” prejudice or students’ hesitation to cross racial/ethnic boundaries. They can partner with those who often have closer contact with students’ religious lives during college—campus ministry staff and local houses of worship—to discuss possible linkages between race and faith during the college years.
When they see racially homogeneous religious student organizations, they can inquire into whether a specific purpose exists in the demographic composition of the group (such as supporting students’ ethnic identity development) or whether the demography is more a byproduct of a group’s hesitation to address race.
Finally, given that many students of different races may share a particular religious faith, they can consider how faith can be used to unite students across racial/ethnic lines instead of divide them. Religion may be the most racially divided arena of life in the U.S., but the university is a rare opportunity to break the cycle of segregation in America.
Park, J. (2012). When race and religion collide: The effect of religion on interracial friendship during college. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5 (1), 8-21 DOI: 10.1037/a0026960