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The email went out at around 6pm on Tuesday night, shocking students at one of the nation’s leading Christian colleges.
“On Wednesday, April 13, a swastika was drawn over the residence hall room door of an African American student,” read the email from Biola University staff to the Los Angeles campus’s more than 6,000 students. “The posting of this symbol was wrong and we want you to know that we condemn it in the strongest terms.”
The email continued on to say that the school is working with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to investigate the incident, as it violates state and federal hate crime law.
The Daily Dot reached out to Biola’s administration for comment and was informed that the person responsible for the swastika graffiti had not yet been identified. Campus authorities were made aware of the incident on Monday and met privately with the affected students that afternoon.
“I am deeply distressed and grieved by this incident, and I hope all of us on this campus are distressed,” said Biola President Barry Corey in an email to the Daily Dot.
“We must lament these actions that convey hate and discrimination which deny dignity to a child of God, created in His image as all of us are,” Corey said. “Our hearts must break when moments like this happen. We can’t tolerate it or act like it’s no big deal. This act undermines the heart of what it means to be a Christ-centered community.”
Erin Green, a student and member of the campus LGBT group Biolans’ Equal Ground, described the school’s atmosphere in the wake of the mass email, noting that a chapel event addressing the incident was scheduled to take place on Wednesday.
“Biola is a diverse campus, but there’s mostly white students,” Green said. “In my class, they were mostly kind of joking around about it, which really surprised me—joking around about Black Lives Matter and saying, ‘All lives matter.’ One guy said as a joke, ‘Yeah, I’m the one who did it.’ That’s how lightly white students on campus take this situation.”
Biola sophmore Warwick Runnels, a biracial student who interns at the office of Multi Ethic Programming and Development, said the incident was “definitely not out of nowhere.”
“When we [students of color] speak up about the oppression that we feel and the invisibility, there’s this immediate backlash of ‘Oh, but we’re all just Christians, we’re in this together,'” Runnels told the Daily Dot. “A lot of ‘I can’t be a racist because I have a black friend.’ That’s pretty much the cultural climate.”
“There hasn’t been anything as obvious as this,” he continued, “but there’s been little things that build up over time.”
Runnels described a surreal campus atmosphere the day after students learned about the swastika incident. Most of the students of color he interacted with were “deeply saddened,” or described feeling “numb.”
“As I was walking around, I got so many, like, conciliatory glances from white students who would just sort of look at me and then look down,” Runnels said. “I’ve gotten a few pats on the shoulder. It feels cheap, at times.”
On social media, Biola students expressed frustration over a campus atmosphere that led to a racist incident.
When people at Biola think that “racism is over” yet we get this disturbingly awful email. IM SO DONE pic.twitter.com/b01Vp7SvrA
— Nadia Lauren (@nlauren_) April 20, 2016
Sad that it took a hate crime for Biola to get its priorities straight. THINGS NEED TO CHANGE HERE pic.twitter.com/yhNUZh12vU
— bridge (@bridgenegrita) April 20, 2016
“What even is a swastika” said one very very real Biola student rn
— Brændon Wetmore (@BrandonWetmore) April 20, 2016
The incident raised questions about whether diversity efforts and educational awareness campaigns around race and other identity issues were actually reaching the students with the most conservative views.
“Christian institutions aren’t in any way less prone to racism,” black Christian activist and seminarian Micky ScottBey Jones—who is also currently in a Master’s program at Oregon’s George Fox University, where she is the only black woman—told the Daily Dot. “I think a lot of us have that dream when we go to Christian schools.”
Jones said that marginalized groups are often conflated when it comes to conservative backlash.”You see backlash of various kinds,” she said. “We want to say these are isolated incidents, but so often they are not.”
The school hosted SCORR, a Student Congress on Racial Reconciliation, in February. But Runnels described similar campus events as a sort of preaching-to-the-choir scenario where the same social justice-oriented students show up each time. Other students don’t seem to take the idea of racial reconciliation very seriously.
“For a lot of students, I think they view it as going to a priest to absolve their sins,” said Runnels of panels and workshops that deal with race and racism. “They think it’s a one-and-done thing: Go in and admit it and then go on with their day.”
For many, the concept of a racist hate crime occurring at a university in Los Angeles is just as shocking as the idea that it could happen at a Christian school. But Biola is located in La Mirada, California, a largely white suburb with an African-American population of only 2.3 percent. And as sources mentioned, there are rumors the university is battling with its wealthy donors over its increasing commitment to diversity and social justice programming.
Rev. Jacqui Lewis, a minister and the host of the MSNBC show Just Faith, told the Daily Dot that the path to reconciliation is not an easy one—but it takes courage and the ability to see the “so-called ‘other’ as inextricably connected to ourselves.”
“How tragic it is that hatred seeks to rear its ugly head in these times when our global family needs the power of revolutionary love to heal us,” said Lewis in a statement emailed to the Daily Dot. “I pray for the students and faculty of Biola University to have courageous conversations create the context for truth-telling and understanding.”
On Thursday, the campus will host two events for students in the wake of the incident: a forum with Residence Life at one of the dorms, and a panel discussion on race and racism. The school also directed students to call its pastoral care and counseling hotlines to deal with any emotional distress or other concerns.
In the meantime, students of color like Runnels refused to be scared off from continuing emphasis on racial justice at the Christian college.
“It’s an uphill battle, but it’s one worth fighting for,” Runnels said. “Jesus died for all—not just for white culture and white comfort.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled La Mirada, California. Also, campus authorities met with affected students on the same day they learned of the incident. The headline has been updated for accuracy.
Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.