Suspend the offending students. Make them apologize. And then send them to diversity training.
That’s the usual regimen of punishments after students are caught engaging in racist or anti-Semitic activity, like the Princeton, N.J. high schoolers whose “Jews vs. Nazis” beer-pong game went viral last week. A photo posted to Snapchat showed the students pouring beer into cups arranged in the shape of a swastika on one side and a Star of David on another.
It’s not clear what disciplinary action the students will face. But earlier this year, Phoenix school officials suspended a group of students who posted a picture of themselves wearing T-shirts that spelled out the N-word. In a statement, their principal also noted the students’ “obvious need for sensitivity training.”
But most research on diversity and sensitivity training shows that it doesn’t do much to affect attitudes or behavior. Schools can influence knowledge, however. When students do or say something bigoted, then, we should require them to read and write about it.
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In the Princeton beer-pong game, “Jews” received an “Anne Frank” cup that they could hide anywhere while the “Nazis” had the power to “Auschwitz” an opponent by making him sit out. So the students should be required to produce research papers about Frank and the death camp where she was murdered.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix students should be required to read Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy’s exhaustive history of the N-word in American life. Their assignment would be to describe the roots of the term in the age of slavery, the ways that white people used it to stigmatize blacks, and how African-Americans sometimes appropriated the word for their own purposes.
That would also require the students to probe the complex, contextual meanings of the term.
Would this kind of student research alter the way the offending kids feel or act? We don’t know. But it would surely enhance what they know, which is probably all we can expect schools to do.
Changing attitudes turns out to be much harder. A 2008 study of 2,000 students at the University of California Los Angeles concluded that diversity trainings and other so-called multicultural programming had no effect on how students thought and felt about race.
More recently, an analysis of 200 studies of diversity trainings conducted over the past 40 years found no evidence that these exercises changed people’s racial attitudes over the long term. Some trainings did postively alter participants’ short-term attitudes, but these feelings often dissipated after a single negative encounter with someone of another race.
It’s not hard to imagine why diversity training so often falls short of its goal. Feelings about race are deeply rooted in childhood, family and culture. A few workshops aren’t going to make much of a difference.
And how can you tell what someone “really” feels about race? Students are experts at giving the answer that the teacher wants. So it’s easy to game any exercise that hinges on the expression of the “right” attitude or emotion.
That’s why schools should stick to teaching students who engage in racist and anti-Semitic activity about the history of racism and anti-Semitism. If that ends up making them more tolerant and broadminded, all the better. But at least they’ll learn something about the most fundamental question of history: how have human beings defined and denigrated each other, across space and time, and why? There’s no single right answer to that.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University.