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Conversation Stoppers

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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."

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