Talking about Race: Community Dialogues and the Politics of Difference

Talking about Race: Community Dialogues and the Politics of Difference

Talking about Race: Community Dialogues and the Politics of Difference

Talking about Race: Community Dialogues and the Politics of Difference


It is a perennial question: how should Americans deal with racial and ethnic diversity? More than 400 communities across the country have attempted to answer it by organizing discussions among diverse volunteers in an attempt to improve race relations. In Talking about Race, Katherine Cramer Walsh takes an eye-opening look at this strategy to reveal the reasons behind the method and the effects it has in the cities and towns that undertake it.

With extensive observations of community dialogues, interviews with the discussants, and sophisticated analysis of national data, Walsh shows that while meeting organizers usually aim to establish common ground, participants tend to leave their discussions with a heightened awareness of differences in perspective and experience. Drawing readers into these intense conversations between ordinary Americans working to deal with diversity and figure out the meaning of citizenship in our society, she challenges many preconceptions about intergroup relations and organized public talk. Finally disputing the conventional wisdom that unity is the only way forward, Walsh prescribes a practical politics of difference that compels us to reassess the place of face-to-face discussion in civic life and the critical role of conflict in deliberative democracy.


In the fall of 2000, I woke up to an announcement on the radio asking for volunteers for the City of Madison Study Circles on Race. The brief ad said that participants would talk in small, racially diverse groups about race once a week for several months. The point was to improve race relations through better understanding.

It caught my attention.

I was in the midst of finishing up a study in which I had observed several groups of people for several years, trying to understand how they interpreted public affairs through their conversations. One of the things I learned was that through their talk, the people I spent time with clarified their own racial identities and used these as tools to make sense of politics. This on its own is not troubling, but what is troubling is that much of this talk perpetuated racial stereotypes and exclusionary identities. Also, in the neighborhood corner store that was the site of my main case, a group of retired white men met just ten steps away from a separate group of people who were primarily African Americans. They avoided each other, albeit cordially, every morning.

This lack of interracial interaction and the exclusionary identities that went along with it were not unique to the corner store. Nevertheless, watching it happen day after day left me convinced that if our society was ever to nurture social identities—which play a central role in individuals' attempts to understand public affairs—that were not racially exclusionary, we had to do so proactively, through fostering interaction across racial boundaries.

I was certainly not the first to come to this conclusion. Within academia alone, intergroup contact scholars had been saying similar things for about fifty years. These insights had in part fueled drives to desegregate public . . .

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