Ignorance of history said to be one of the main reasons students commit racial offenses

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Racism and ignorance churn on college campuses as surely as they do in society at large, with a number of high-profile incidents each year serving as a ready reminder lest anyone forget. In fact, experts say, some of the incidents stem from a type of cultural forgetfulness — and a sense among certain students, sometimes willful, sometimes not, that they live in a world wherein it is no longer relevant to remember.

“Some of it is deliberately hostile, from the stories that I’ve read, but some of the incidents are motivated out of a kind of racial ignorance,” said Nina Lerman, chair of the history department and director of the race and ethnic studies program at Whitman College, in Washington, the site of a daylong seminar on race last week after students painted their skin black for a party. “Many white students believe that civil rights kind of fixed things, and that we’re supposed to live in a colorblind society. They don’t understand that there’s this history of offensiveness that still lives.”

“It’s a particular moment. As we live through our multiculturalism, at the same time, we are becoming rather distant and removed from some of the history of how we got to where we are,” said Ben Vinson, director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, the location of another controversial race-related incident this year. “Because you’re distant from the history, there’s a comfort level in expressing images or symbols that can be offensive to one group.”

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