What Can You Say? America's National Conversation on Race

What Can You Say? America's National Conversation on Race

What Can You Say? America's National Conversation on Race

What Can You Say? America's National Conversation on Race


We are in a transitional moment in our national conversation on race. "Despite optimistic predictions that Barack Obama's election would signal the end of race as an issue in America, the race-related news stories just keep coming. Race remains a political and polarizing issue, and the sprawling, unwieldy, and often maddening means we have developed to discuss and evaluate what counts as "racial" can be frustrating. In What Can You Say?, John Hartigan Jr. examines a watershed year of news stories, taking these events as a way to understand American culture and challenge our existing notions of what is racial- or not.

The book follows race stories that have made news headlines- including Don Imus's remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team, protests in Jena, Louisiana, and Barack Obama's presidential campaign- to trace the shifting contours of mainstream U. S. public discussions of race as they incorporate new voices, words, and images. Focused on the underlying dynamics of American culture that shape this conversation, this book aims to make us more fluent in assessing the stories we consume about race.

Advancing our conversation on race hinges on recognizing and challenging the cultural conventions governing the ways we speak about and recognize race. In drawing attention to this curious cultural artifact, our national conversation on race, Hartigan ultimately offers a way to to understand race in the totality of American culture, as a constantly evolving debate. As this book demonstrates, the conversation is far from over.


this book began as a file folder on my desk in which I kept clippings of news stories about race. the idea was to keep on hand some current examples of how race matters today, which I could use to update my lectures or my writing. It quickly filled and then gave way to a series of similar folders, each labeled with a proliferation of titles—“race and health,” “workplace discrimination,” the “race gap” in education, and many more. I also subdivided these into “liberal” and “conservative” lines of argument and debate.

These articles ranged from reports of particular incidents to coverage of new poll results on racial opinions and to recent findings from studies on discrimination. They also included excellent journalistic essays and critical commentaries that sharpened my thinking about race. Eventually, too, there were stories about coverage of race in events like senate races or other political campaigns. As the files grew, I began to see a broad stream of public discourse unfolding, a meandering current of commentary, reflections, and reporting. Then I started to think about the larger question of how we settle on which examples have the greatest bearing in telling us something substantive about how race matters today. Sometimes these thoughts were sparked by the glass-is-half-fullor-half-empty debates over whether racial disparities in this country are diminishing or remaining fairly constant. But also, I wondered about the representativeness of any one example or incident as they just kept occurring, sometimes in novel forms, sometimes as maddening repetitions of the same old stories. Which ones were most exemplary of the enduring significance of race?

Eventually, I realized this question itself warranted a book. I set-

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