Impact of Ethnic Studies on Attitudes

The Arizona state legislature is at it again, now considering legislation to ban specific ethnic studies teaching practices (such as the privilege walk) at the university as well as K-12 levels. This proposed legislation is based on the belief that such courses and activities promote resentment based on race, gender, religious affiliation, social class, and/or political affiliation. However a robust body of research on the impact of ethnic studies on attitudes finds the opposite. Here I draw from and update my review of the impact of ethnic studies on students, to look specifically at its impact on attitudes, particularly at the university level.

Numerous surveys and experimental studies in higher education find ethnic studies and other diversity courses and activities to improve students’ racial attitudes. You heard right — improve attitudes, not make them worse.

Much of this research examines the impact of various diversity experiences, particularly course-taking and interracial interaction, on the development of democracy outcomes: students’ “commitment to promoting racial understanding, perspective taking, sense of commonality in values with students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, agreement that diversity and democracy can be congenial, involvement in political affairs and community service during college, as well as commitment to civic affairs after college” (Gurin, Dey, Gurin & Hurtado, 2003, p. 25). For the most part, the courses in these studies included ethnic studies, women’s studies, and broad diversity courses.

The overwhelming and most consistent finding is that, in most cases, such courses have a positive impact on students’ racial understanding, ability to see another perspective, empathy, and commitment to civic engagement (Astin, 1993; Carrell, 1997; Denson, 2009; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado & Gurin, 2002; Lopez, 2004). For example, Mark Engberg’s (2004)  research review of 73 studies of the impact of a diversity course, a diversity workshop, a peer facilitated invention, or a service intervention found that 52 of the studies reported positive gains, 14 reported mixed gains, and only 7 reported no change. As another example, Bowman, Denson and Park (2016) analyzed survey data from 8,634 graduates (91% White) of 229 institutions of higher education. Those who had participated in racial/cultural awareness workshops during college were significantly more likely to be engaged civically as much as six years after graduation than those who had not.

The impact of such experiences is considerably stronger when they include cross-group interaction (Astin, 1993; Bowman, 2010b; Chang, 2002; Denson, 2009; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado & Gurin, 2002; Gurin, Nagda, & Zuñiga, 2013; Lopez, 2004). Gurin and Nagda (2006) found that participation in structured intergroup dialogs:

fosters active thinking about causes of social behavior and knowledge of institutional and other structural features of society that produce and maintain group-based inequalities, . . . increases perception of both commonalities and differences between and within groups and helps students to normalize conflict and build skills to work with conflicts, . . . [and it] enhances interest in political issues and develops a sense of citizenship through college and community activities. (p. 220)

To help teachers and instructors build cross-group interaction into their courses and other learning activities, the National Association for Multicultural Education makes available a basic guide.

Perhaps surprisingly, required diversity courses have a greater positive impact on White students than on students of color (Bowman, 2010a; Denson, 2009; Engberg, 2004; Lopez, 2004), probably because exposure to a systematic analysis of power is newer to White students than to students of color, and because most students of color have engaged in cross-racial interaction previously, a while many White students have not. The first diversity experience can be emotionally challenging, especially for White students (Hogan & Mallot, 2005). But sticking with it pays off. In a large survey study of students in 19 colleges and universities, Bowman (2010a) found that many who take a single diversity course experienced a reduced sense of well-being due to having to grapple with issues they had not been exposed to before. However, students who took more than one diversity course experienced significant gains, with gains being greatest for White male students from economically privileged backgrounds. Another study of 857 White students found much the same (Neville, Lewis, Poteat, & Spanierman, 2014).

While most research on the impact of ethnic studies and other diversity coursework has focused on higher education, it is supported by a smaller body of research at the PreK-12 level. Okoye-Johnson (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of 30 studies that compared the impact of a multicultural curriculum or program, and the traditional curriculum, on racial attitudes of students at PreK-12 levels. The 21 studies of the impact of a multicultural curriculum intervention reported a large effect size showing that it “brought about more positive changes in students’ racial attitudes than did exposure to traditional instruction” (p. 1263). The remaining studies of the impact of extracurricular interventions reported a much smaller positive effect size. This meta-analysis showed that multicultural curriculum that is part of the school’s regular programming has a more powerful positive impact on students’ racial attitudes than extracurricular cultural programming.

It is imperative that education develop students’ ability to communicate with, empathize with, and hear perspectives of people who differ from themselves. Banning practices that produce discomfort among participants who are new to those ideas is no solution. On the contrary, making such courses and workshops widely available, and encouraging participation, is not only prudent, but also supported by the research.

Perhaps the legislators themselves should be taking such courses!

Studies cited

Astin, A. W. (1993). Diversity and multiculturalism on campus: How are students affected? Change 25 (2), 44-50.

Bowman, N. A. (2010a). Disequilibrium and resolution: The non-linear effects of diversity courses on well-being and orientations towards diversity. The Review of Higher Education 33 (4), 543-568.

Bowman, N. A. (2010b). College diversity experiences and cognitive development: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research 80 (1), 4-33.

Bowman, N. A., Denson, N. & Park, J. J. (2016). Racial/cultural awareness workshops and post college civic engagement: A propensity score matching approach. American Educational Research Journal 53(6): 1556-1587.

Carrell, L. J. (1997). Diversity in the communication curriculum: Impact on student empathy. Communication Education 46, 234-244.

Chang, M. J. (2002). The impact of an undergraduate diversity course requirement on students’ racial views and attitudes. The Journal of General Education 51 (1), 21-42.

Denson, N. (2009). Do curricular and co-curricular activities influence racial bias? A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research 79 (2), 805-838.

Engberg, M. E. (2004). Improving intergroup relations in higher education: A critical examination of the influence of educational interventions on racial bias. Review of Educational Research 74 (4), 473-524.

Gurin, P. Y., Dey, E. L., Gurin, G. & Hurtado, S. (2003). How does racial/ethnic diversity promote education? The Western Journal of Black Studies 27 (1), 20-29.

Gurin, P. Y., Dey, E. L., Hurtado, S., Y Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review 72(3), 330-367.

Gurin, P. & Nagda, B. R. A. (2006). Getting to the what, how, and why of diversity on campus. Educational Researcher 35 (1). 20-24.

Gurin, P., Nagda, B. A. & Zuñiga, X. (2013). Dialogue across difference. Russell Sage Foundation.

Hogan, D. E. & Mallott, M. (2005). Changing racial prejudice through diversity education. Journal of College Student Development 46 (2), 115-125.

Lopez, G. E. (2004). Interethnic contact, curriculum, and attitudes in the first year of college. Journal of Social Issues 40 (1), 75-94.

Neville, H. A., Lewis, J. A., Poteat, V. P., & Spanierman, L. B. 2014. Changes in White students’ color-blind racial ideology over 4 years: Do diversity experiences matter? Journal of Counseling Psychology 61(2): 179-190.

Okoye-Johnson, O. (2011). Does multicultural education improve students’ racial attitudes? Implications for closing the achievement gap. Journal of Black Studies 42(8): 1252-1274.


  1. Dr. Steeler, thank you for your timely information and for providing the facts, which always sheds light on a difficult conversation.

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