Conversation Stoppers

Professors examine how we don’t — but should — talk openly about race in the United States

Nov. 15, 2010

First came the fiery attacks last summer as the NAACP approved a resolution condemning perceived racist elements within the Tea Party movement.

A few days later, United States Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign after a video taken out of context showed her regaling an audience with a story about how she withheld help to a white farmer.

Then last month, political analyst and civil rights era expert Juan Williams was fired by National Public Radio over his comments on Fox News that people in Muslim garb on airplanes make him “nervous.”

John Hartigan Jr.
John Hartigan Jr.

Despite optimistic predictions by many that Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008 would signal a decline in racial tensions in America, these kinds of racially charged narratives continue to dominate national headlines.

On the left and the right these episodes have left many people wondering how they can make sense of and perhaps improve the unwieldy ways people talk about race in the United States.

John Hartigan Jr., professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin, is among several faculty members confronting this question. Hartigan’s research on the rhetorical maze of racial discourse in American culture is detailed in his recent book “What Can You Say? America’s Conversation about Race.”

From his yearlong examination of stories about race in the news, Hartigan finds the key to opening an honest, constructive conversation about race is acknowledging that we are all racial — that almost everyone’s view of the world is influenced by race, whether they acknowledge it or not. By understanding that, we can constructively discuss the challenges facing our increasingly multicultural nation, Hartigan says.

“We live in a very individualistic society,” he says. “When people, particularly whites, see themselves strictly as individuals and not as belonging to larger collectives, their ability to see race as permeating their social landscape is profoundly inhibited.”

An obvious example of the individualistic mindset is the Tea Party movement, Hartigan says. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken in 2010 revealed 90 percent of Tea Party supporters are white, predominantly male and economically advantaged. Since its inception, the Tea Party has struggled to shed the perception from critics on the left that its members’ dislike of Obama’s policies is fueled by racism.

By acknowledging we're all racial, we can open an idiom of equality that's much different than what we get when we say we're all racists. John Hartigan Jr.

Rather than taking offense and making counter charges of racism against left-wing activists and the NAACP, Hartigan says Tea Partiers should address how and why race shapes their perspectives, anxieties and stances.

“If Tea Party members could openly discuss the reasons why race plays a role in their protests against the Obama administration, they can give their opponents more room to think about their concerns, which are at root economic,” Hartigan says.

Tea Partiers also need to recognize what is obvious to people outside the movement: that their whiteness matters to their political stance, Hartigan says.

“Arguably, the greatest privilege that whites retain in this country is the ability to assume that race is not something that matters to them personally,” Hartigan says. “That is where the Tea Party’s discussion could take a different turn. By acknowledging we’re all racial, we can open an idiom of equality that’s much different than what we get when we say we’re all racists.”

The discussion remains relevant in a nation that is now 12.9 percent African American and 15.8 percent Hispanic and in which minorities are expected to make up more than half of the population by 2050.

Conversation Stoppers

So how do we move beyond the mudslinging and learn to integrate race into our normal discussions? According to Hartigan, advancing the conversation hinges on recognizing and challenging the social rules that govern the many ways people talk about race.

Drawing on dozens of stories about race that made news headlines in 2007 and 2008, Hartigan points out the many conventions that dictate whether a remark or incident is racial — from political accusations of “playing the race card,” to double standards about blacks and whites using certain racial epithets.

“The constantly changing conventions of how race is discussed in the news fuels this hypersensitivity around race that permeates American culture,” Hartigan says. “In that sense, racism is not as much of a problem as are the cultural taboos around talking about race. We are so concerned about transgressing etiquette that we spend little time formulating new ways of talking about race.”

Simone Browne
Simone Browne

As pundits, reporters and commentators squabble over what is and isn’t construed as racist, more people are choosing their words carefully when they talk about race and many bite their tongues altogether, Hartigan says.

Among the many conventions that limit how people talk about race, accusations about people “playing the race card” are the most debilitating, says Simone Browne, assistant professor of sociology.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, Obama was accused by opponents of “playing the race card” when he said he would look “different” as president.

“Most often the accusation of ‘playing the race card’ works to deny racism and its effects or discount and shut down a meaningful discussion about racial inequalities,” says Browne, co-author of “The Obamas and the New Politics of Race,” a special issue of Qualitative Sociology. “So ‘playing the race card’ card is really just an exercise of power often played by those seeking to deny racial inequalities. It is a rhetorical tool that silences.”

Another silencing rhetorical tool is political correctness, says John Butler, a management professor in the McCombs School of Business and a sociology professor who is also director of the university’s IC² Institute. When public debates become muddled by charges of racism, people will focus more on racial tensions and less on the issues that matter — like improving upward mobility for black America, Butler says.

“People have the right to protect their freedom of speech,” says Butler, who advised George W. Bush’s presidential campaign and was appointed by Bush to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

“There should be an open debate on the direction this country is going — regardless of the racial background of the President and the racial demographics of the people who are debating his policies, Butler says. “Once we can switch our focus from political correctness to opportunity structures, we can finally make a change.”

A Learning Curve

As the topic of race becomes more difficult to navigate, many parents avoid discussing it with their children, sometimes because they are unsure of what to say or they want to discourage their children from talking openly about it in public, says Rebecca Bigler, professor of psychology and director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab.

“The most common mistake — especially with white parents — is they want their children to believe we live in a society where race doesn’t matter, and they believe that being ‘colormute’ will achieve this goal,” says Bigler, who studies the formation and consequences of racial and gender stereotypes. “Parents believe that if they act colorblind, their kids will, too.”

Rebecca Bigler
Rebecca Bigler

According to Bigler, children categorize others by race as early as their first year of life and start forming prejudices as early as age 3.

“Children are perceptive and they notice racial differences,” Bigler says. “If adults don’t discuss the reasons why poor neighborhoods are mostly black and Latino, children will form their own explanations.”

In a 2007 study Bigler examined children’s views about the U.S. presidency and race, gender and ethnicity. When asked why — prior to Obama’s election — only white men held that office, 5-to-12-year-olds revealed fairly cynical views. Some said, “White people don’t like black people,” while others claimed, “It’s against the law for a black person to become president.”

It’s important for parents to realize their children are going to form these biased attitudes on their own,” Bigler says. “Children naturally categorize everything they see. So if their parents only associate with people of the same race, they’re going to do the same.”

Direct conversations at home and in the classroom about prejudice and discrimination can significantly improve children’s attitudes about race, Bigler says.

The most common mistake -- especially with white parents -- is they want their children to believe we live in a society where race doesn't matter, and they believe that being 'colormute' will achieve this goal. Rebecca Bigler

Bigler found white children who received history lessons about discrimination against famous African Americans had significantly more positive attitudes toward African Americans than children who received lessons with no mention of racism.Although parents would rather shield their children from the harsh realities of racism, staying silent about race not only stunts the learning process, it also supports the notion that the subject of race is off limits, says Bigler.

Our kids are going to live in a world that’s much more ethnically diverse,” Bigler says. “And to get along in that world effectively, it’s important for children to be comfortable talking about race and be able to form close relationships with people of different races.”

Much like the Tea Party activists, many white parents refuse to acknowledge race plays a significant role in their concerns and lifestyle choices, Bigler says. And if parents want to raise non-biased children, they must be prepared to reconsider some of their choices, even if it means diversifying their social circles or living in diverse neighborhoods.

“Most Americans hold ‘unconscious’ racial biases,” Bigler says. “They also tend to live in white worlds. They live in white neighborhoods, go to white churches, shop in white grocery stores and send their kids to white schools. So there are many whites, including some who join the Tea Parties, who are racially prejudiced, but they don’t admit it — to their children or even to themselves.”

Making Sense of Race in the News

Looking back a last summer’s cacophony of conflicting voices, it’s hard to tell whether race relations in the United States are advancing or regressing, Hartigan says.

But to answer that question, Hartigan suggests we step back and ask, “What are the cultural conventions that shape how we recognize words or incidents as ‘racial?’ Stories about white celebrities like radio show host Don Imus and actor Michael Richards who use racial slurs are as much about our race-based expectations for who can say what in public as they are about white racism,” Hartigan says.

Ben Carrington
Ben Carrington

“Stringing together these dramatic news stories presents a compelling case that racism is still a problem in this country,” Hartigan says. “But if you look at an entire year’s worth of race stories, you’ll see these particular episodes are out-of-the ordinary, newsworthy, incidents that erupt from a backdrop of mundane, generally unremarkable moments.”

In this larger view, the interesting point of these stories is they involve intense conversations about the conventions people rely upon to judge public speech as acceptable for whites and blacks, based on implicit assumptions about how race should and should not be discussed, Hartigan says.

When Don Imus made his remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, reporters contextualized these alongside remarks by other white male celebrities, Hartigan says. “But Imus’ comments could also be put in context with Isaiah Thomas’ statement that ‘it is all right for black men to make derogatory comments about black women, but not for white men to do so.’”

From silent racism to reverse racism to aversive racism, the concept of racism is being stretched to the point to where it’s losing its meaning, Hartigan says. And as the concept becomes more convoluted, it’s becoming more difficult for people to discern which remarks are acceptable or “racist.”

“What makes our ‘national conversation’ quite challenging is that these cultural conventions can change or shift rather suddenly,” Hartigan says. “The great value in this conversation is that it opens a window onto the crucial question of how our culture shapes and constrains the ways we think about and recognize race.”

And in the age of new media technologies, it’s becoming even more challenging for people to make sense of the media frenzy triggered by edited video clips and nonstop news feeds.

From silent racism to reverse racism to aversive racism, the concept of racism is being stretched to the point to where it's losing its meaning. John Hartigan Jr.

That confusion reflects the challenges journalists face as they struggle to report on such stories as the debate between the NAACP and the Tea Party or the Sherrod scandal, Hartigan says.

Although Hartigan believes journalists have come a long way in challenging people’s beliefs about race, Ben Carrington, associate professor of sociology, says there’s still room for improvement, especially in sports journalism.

“In the past, sports commentators often compared black athletes to monkeys, gazelles and cheetahs,” says Carrington, author of the recently published book “Race, Sport and Politics.”

“Although they no longer make these blatant comparisons, they still use code words and phrases to describe black athletes’ abilities like speed, power and strength,” says Carrington, who co-authored “The Obamas and the New Politics of Race” with Browne. “Yet commentators associate white athletes with cognitive descriptors, such as the ability to read the game or having composure under pressure.”

Carrington says sociologists and social scientists need to do a better job at intervening in public debates to raise awareness of how non-white athletes are represented in the sports media.

“The sports media remains overwhelming white and male,” says Carrington. “It tends to reflect the unexamined interests of whites and men, further limiting a diversity of viewpoints that might challenge common sense ways of thinking about race and sport.”

As an academic who studies race, Hartigan says now is the time for professors to offer new perspectives on how to constructively talk about race by working with the media, writing op-eds and speaking in public forums.

“It’s more incumbent now on academics to come up with better ways of talking about our country’s racial dialogue,” Hartigan says. “We aren’t offering journalists enough in terms of new concepts and new strategies to hone their analysis. They need to recognize that racism as a concept is not enough to explain all the ways race matters.”

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404;
Banner photo and photos of John Hartigan Jr.,
Simone Browne and Rebecca Bigler: Christina Murrey

Photo of Ben Carrington: Marsha Miller