Zero Indifference in the Classroom is one of Our Biggest Tools against the Rise of Hate Crimes

The Rise in Hate Crimes

Over the past few years, hate crimes have been steadily on the rise. A look at the FBI’s database of hate crimes from 1996–2019 (as of the publishing of this post, the 2020 statistics have yet to be published) reveals that up until recently, we were enjoying a pretty steady drop in the total number of known hate crime offenders and victims (this doesn’t necessarily mean that there was less racial prejudice in America but we can certainly claim that there were less reported acts of prejudice).

Outside of a dramatic rise after 9/11, the number of hate crime offenders and victims was steadily dropping until 2014

A look at the graph above reveals that even with a large spike in hate crimes after 9/11 that the numbers began a steady drop again by 2006. One of the obvious factors responsible for this enormous push is the 2016 presidency and all the race issues (amongst other social issues) that were dragged to the forefront before, during and after this 4 year period (even now, the news cycle as I write this post is dominated by the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd). However, it would be irresponsible to solely attribute the hate crime rise to any one factor. Racial prejudice is a complex, multi-layered issue that is not easily wished away with witty remarks and good intentions. This raises the question of how to begin the work of bridging racial divides and promoting empathy and understanding amongst different people and groups. One of the keys to doing so is returning to a proven sociological theory from the 1950s known as the “contact hypothesis” or “social contact theory.”

The Contact Hypothesis

The original contact hypothesis was developed in 1954 by an American psychologist named Gordon Allport. Allport argued that interaction between members of different groups helps to facilitate prejudice reduction, ESPECIALLY if three conditions were met:

a) the participants in both groups were of approximate equal status and power

b) both groups had or were given common goals

c) there is support from relevant authorities

In 2001, this hypothesis was updated by University of California, Santa Cruz research psychologist Thomas Pettigrew who (after a 500 study meta-analysis) found that while the three above mentioned factors certainly increased the benefits of intergroup interaction, all that was needed to see a significant drop in prejudicial attitudes was any kind of contact at all (outside of very hostile or threatening interactions). The census also seems to document increasing contact over the years. A look at the US census over the past 20 years reveals that the population of residents that identity as two races or more has more than doubled.

This factor signifies an increase in intergroup interaction which could be one of many reasons why the populations of people involved in hate crimes was steadily dropping. Increases in intergroup interaction did not slow down when hate crimes began increasing post-2014, however, which requires a closer look into the country’s intergroup breakdowns.

Lack of Contact

Even as the population of our country continues to diversify, the questions remains as to whether this necessitates that there is enough diversity for intergroup interaction to happen naturally. The 2019 census population distribution by state by race shows that that is not necessarily the case.

Diversity across different states isn’t high enough for the most part to imagine high degrees of intergroup contact

The above graph shows that for the majority of states, the highly uneven racial distribution can make consistent social contact with different groups difficult and statistically unlikely (especially if one never leaves their hometown). This poses a serious problem. If contact is key but we cannot realistically establish scenarios for contact for every person in every state for every group, how do we diminish racial prejudice?

We confront it as it develops.

Racial Attitudes in Children

While it is not realistic to establish any kind of system where the grand majority of the population is coming into contact with people of different groups. We can safely assume that the grand majority of the population do attend school for a significant period of their childhoods. Children are not immune to the concept of race either. In fact, the FBI database does distinguish between adult victims and juvenile victims of hate crimes.

At the current publication of this post, one can imagine that the numbers by motivation will look very different for 2020 and 2021

Children become aware of race a lot younger than people realize. According the APA (American Psychological Association), children are already aware of the concept of race (for categorical purposes) by as early as three months old and by the age of four years are already capable of associating different traits with different races. With these thoughts came rise to bullying and harmful comments to which schools began adopting zero tolerance policies to counter in 1994 (originally to combat children bringing guns to school but since has extended to punish many offenses including racially prejudicial comments). A zero tolerance policy means first offenses result in either suspension or expulsion. However time and time again has shown that not only do zero tolerance policies do nothing to curb racial prejudice but it has also been shown to push kids behind educationally and disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities more than other students which in turn is far more likely to only reinforce negative prejudicial thoughts. So, how do we address prejudice as it arises in the classroom without utilizing policies that harm students?

We use Zero Indifference.

Zero Indifference

Zero indifference was a policy that arose from the research of Jacqueline Leung on the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs in her book “Reforming School Discipline for Equity and Excellence in Oregon: Recommendations for Policy and Practice.” Zero Indifference as a philosophy is defined by collective action by the school to not tolerate certain behaviors. Harmful comments do not go excused or ignored but rather are directly confronted by the teacher when they arise and used as opportunities for learning and understanding. Every interaction looks different because every interaction has to be modified towards the harmful comment that arose (teachers don’t need to wait for harmful comments either but can exercise being proactive in social education).The success found in schools that have implemented zero indifference policies is strong enough that the project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The Respect for All Project, and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network all recommend zero indifference to address bullying and harassment. This is especially important because tomorrow’s student population is changing faster than ever and with these changes is coming a lot of opportunities to inform and educate.

Tomorrow’s classroom is going to be a lot more diverse than today’s

To be clear, zero indifference is not a magic pill. It is a valuable tool in our toolbox for dismantling racism piece by piece and slowly eradicating prejudicial thoughts as they arise.


Today’s America is very scary for a lot of people. Specifically (as the publishing of this post), hate crimes against the Asian community have clearly been on the rise and although those statistics won’t be published for quite some time, it is not clear when we can expect to see those numbers go back down. What is clear is that as hate crimes rise so too must effective policies rise to meet it. Using zero indifference in the classroom as a tool in the classroom to teach students to be conscious of prejudicial thoughts and understand that they are harmful to others is one way we can implement changes that can slowly over time bring the rate of hate crimes back down.

Will it ever be possible to fully eradicate racism and prejudicial thoughts of all kind? I don’t know if I’ll ever have the capacity to answer that. Even if I could say yes, I don’t even know where we’d begin. All I know is that if we, individually and collectively, can spare the tiniest effort to make tomorrow better than today was, we’ll have taken one more step forward in the right direction. And another. And another.

Chris de la Cruz is a guacamole-eating and fitness-loving data scientist, actor, freestyler, and beatboxer (under the moniker MC Lightbulb)