Preparing for the Earthquake: When Racism Flares into Violence

By Paul Tokunaga

"The United States is a racial earthquake waiting to shake. The country is full of racial 'fault lines,' some major, some minor. All it needs is an incident to detonate it. Come on, Christians. Get out of the cave!" 

No, this is not my commentary on the recent events in Ferguson, MO. I wrote those words in 1992.

It was right after the controversial Rodney King verdict and rioting in Los Angeles. Sadly, 22 years later, much of it still rings true. 

Here is the rest of the article I wrote at the time for InterVarsity’s Student Leadership Journal:


When news broke about the L.A. riots in 1992, we asked, ”Why?”  Because, as former Senator Mark Hatfield once said, “Desperate people do desperate things. All they have to lose are their chains.”

At the time, I was at an InterVarsity chapter camp in Florida. In our daily prayer meeting, a staff member led us in repentant prayer: “Lord, we have failed you. We deserved this. Please forgive us!” As she prayed, I cried. I knew I had helped cause those riots, even 2,500 miles away.


Facing Our Own Racism

With a group of InterVarsity staff focused on reconciliation in our ministry (2005).


You see, in my heart of hearts, I am a racist. I know, technically I’m not allowed to be one. I am a Japanese American. Ethnic minorities, almost by definition (according to some sociologists), cannot be racist. Okay, maybe I’m only “prejudiced,” but sometimes, my heart feels awfully racist.

I’m racist because I constantly stand at arm’s length from people because of their color. And I’m not too picky… any color different from my own can get on my nerves.

I’m instinctively wary around blacks. When I’m on Atlanta’s rapid transit, I edge away in my seat if I’m next to a young black male. I’m very conscious of my wallet. If he’s white, the wallet never enters my mind. I’m ashamed, but it’s true.

But I’m racist with white people, too, especially “Deep South” white people. I’ve stereotyped them so much that they hardly stand a chance of having a decent relationship with me. I’ve never quite broken loose of the “Great White Master” mentality. It’s hard to feel like I’m really on par with a white peer.

I’m racist because I constantly stand at arm’s length from people because of their color. And I’m not too picky… any color different from my own can get on my nerves.

I grew up in California where Mexicans were often at the bottom of the social and economic barrel. Our gardener was Mexican-American. When I was a teenager, it was hard to consider his children as my equal, even though they did much better in the same high school than I did.

I’m even racist with Asians. I grew up believing that Japanese were better than Chinese, who were better than Koreans, who were better than Filipinos.

Now, before you send me a membership to the Ku Klux Klan (don’t worry — they wouldn’t take me), know that I’ve been working on these issues for years. I even get asked to speak on racial subjects. But deep inside, the battle rages on.

Are my feelings that much different from yours?

Are you African-American? Would you marry a white person? Are you Cuban? Would you choose to room with a Haitian? Are you white? How many non-white friends have you invited home for the weekend?

As I talk to people, watch the news and read the papers, I sense more and more that we are building hedges around ourselves. We are insulating ourselves from the people with whom we don’t want to have social contact. Instead of working through our differences, we’re wrapping them up and putting prideful labels on them. When I say, “We’re just so different,” am I not really saying, “I’m better”?

Look around our campuses: we live in different dorms or at least on different floors. “They” have “their” tables in the cafeteria; we have “ours.” We prefer to hang out with those who look, dress and talk like us. Various groups on our campuses demand the right to celebrate differences. But instead of celebrating, we are full of awkward uneasiness, even fear.

At least I am, more than I like to admit.


The Effects of Fear

That fear gets transposed into other important areas. For example, it can affect the way I vote. Will I vote for the candidate who will look out for my personal interests, or the interests of those whose needs may be greater than my own?

There are times when our love for our campus encompasses more than verbally sharing the saving message of Christ. I believe there are times when God asks us to take proactive roles as peacemakers and reconcilers in Jesus’ name.

Fear also affects my faith. Will I worship and fellowship with people with whom I’m most comfortable or with a group that most represents Christ’s total body?

Racism today is not just a black/white issue, although those are the main factions that most need reconciliation. In many places, it is White/Mexican American, or it’s Korean/Black.

Racism is incredibly complex. The point of this article is not to argue its cause or to come up with a three-point definition with which we can all agree. What I care about is how racism destroys people. Racism and fear can blow people apart (even literally) like a stick of dynamite tied to one’s chest. For others, they eat away at one’s insides like a cancerous growth. Both cause death to the soul.


Proactive Posturing

Speaking at the 1990 Urbana Student Mission Conference.

But what in the world does racism and its resulting violence have to do with InterVarsity and our mission on campus? Just this: the echoes of rioting can reach every campus. Campuses near urban centers are especially close to major racial fault lines, but even small, rural campuses will feel the aftershocks.

Part of InterVarsity’s vision is to “engage the campus in all its ethnic diversity with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Generally, we think of campus engagement as evangelism. I am fully committed to that.

But there are times when our love for our campus encompasses more than verbally sharing the saving message of Christ. In fact, I believe there are times when God asks us to take proactive roles as peacemakers and reconcilers in Jesus’ name.

I believe he is calling us to be ready before the next racial earthquake hits.

While I was a sophomore at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, our InterVarsity chapter took an active role in protecting our campus from a potentially violent campus demonstration. We did not wait to see what a riot would do to our campus. We took the offensive. We offered ourselves, as Christian peacemakers, to the college president. We circulated thousands of flyers encouraging people to consider their actions from God’s perspective. The college president called on the Christians, not the National Guard (his second option), to protect his campus.

We met with other Christian groups and planned strategies for the demonstration itself. As an editor of the campus paper, I wrote an editorial pleading with students to be rational and thoughtful about their actions. Most importantly, we engaged a network of prayer warriors — about a thousand fellow InterVarsity students up and down the West Coast to pray for us.

The end result was a peaceful campus. The words I had shared initially with the college president had come to pass: “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (James 3: 18). I believe God can use us in the same kind of way as peacemakers and reconcilers in the arena of racism on our campus. We can be proactive preventers and healers rather than just those who react in disgust.


The warning tremors have sounded, and the shocks to come may be many and strong. Are you  ready to be a proactive peacemaker on your campus and in your city?

Get Ready for Action

What can Christians do? There is no tried-and-true strategy. In fact, because racism is so complex, we often face uncharted territory.

Here are just a few suggestions for starters:

  • Take a hard look at yourself. Explore your own prejudices. Don’t let yourself off the hook too easily. At the same time, don’t go looking for racism in others. As Jesus said, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). Most of us will need a dramatic conversion experience if we are to come to terms with our own prejudice and racism, almost a road-to-Damascus, born-again-again experience where God confronts us with our sin and we repent and vow—in his strength—to change our attitudes and actions.
  • As a chapter, do some soul-searching within your fellowship. Have honest conversations with each other, and focus personally: “Here are my racial struggles …” If there are ethnic-specific InterVarsity chapters on your campus, consider bringing them together to talk with each other.
  • Be informed through good reading. A good place to start is with books on racism from InterVarsity Press, then be sure to discuss with others.
  • Get involved in activities in different ethnic communities. Take advantage of activities and lectures focused around ethnic cultures, such as those during Black History Month. Have your chapter co-sponsor events with various ethnic groups, choosing activities that everyone can embrace.
  • Get to know key leaders on campus…not later, but now. Which leaders on your campus can make a difference when the racial barometer rises? Get to know key leaders of the various ethnic groups and racial coalitions, the campus newspaper editor, the campus radio station manager, the president or vice-president for student affairs and the student body president. If tensions escalate on campus, your group will be a known and trusted quantity, provided you have built relationships of mutual respect. You’ll have earned a hearing.
  • Understand how your campus’s communication systems work. That includes knowing how to get an editorial or letter to the editor into the newspaper and how to get time on the campus radio station. There might come a time when a rational, reasoned voice will be needed via the campus’s mass communication systems.


Warned and Ready

When an earthquake hits without warning, it devastates. That’s why scientists are working so hard to find ways to predict their coming. What about the impending explosion of anger in our cities?

We already know that the stress is high along the fault lines of racial and economic difference. The warning tremors have sounded, and the shocks to come may be many and strong. Are you— and is your community—ready to be a proactive peacemaker on your campus and in your city?

I am proud and grateful to hear about InterVarsity chapters actively pick up the pieces after troubling demonstrations in their communities. It will be even more satisfying to know that some explosive events didn’t happen because InterVarsity chapters anticipated their coming and headed them off at the pass. We won’t read about those episodes that didn’t happen in the newspaperBut we will read about them later, in the Lamb’s Book of Life. I believe it will say something like, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You loved your campus well.”

*This article was originally published in Student Leadership Journal, Fall 1992, when Paul was a regional director in the Southeast.

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