Learning Race to Unlearn Racism: The Effects of Ethnic Studies Course-Taking

Janine de Novais, George Spencer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Over the past two decades, higher education research has built a consensus that engaging with coursework on race is beneficial to students’ socioemotional and cognitive development. Paradoxically, we do not have clarity as to what that means, specifically. Most studies exploring the association between diversity courses and the development of students’ racial understanding examine a variety of dependent variables and consider combinations of outcomes–attitudinal, behavior and cognitive–that, while related, are distinct. This heterogeneity of results is a challenge for institutions of higher education, researchers, and practitioners. This study addresses that challenge by narrowing the scope of inquiry. We focus on Ethnic Studies courses in particular, and on their effect on two distinct types of racial attitudes: students’ understanding of structural racism, and students’ cross-racial empathy. Employing data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF), we address a persistent methodological challenge in the research by employing propensity score matching to statistically control for self-selection bias. We find that while there is some association between Ethnic Studies course-taking and racial attitudes, the relationship varies across different types of Ethnic Studies courses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)860-883
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Higher Education
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2 2019


  • diversity courses
  • Ethnic Studies
  • propensity score analysis
  • racial attitudes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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