How to Talk About Race

My scholarly work rarely touches on questions of race, ethnicity, or identity, but as an African-American male, my interest in these topics is quite personal. When Obama identified a need for more good-faith dialogue on race in this country in his acclaimed “A More Perfect Union” speech last March, I fully endorsed the sentiment but found myself at a loss to conceptualize the nature of such an exchange in light of the off-putting toxicity of much American racial discourse. Recently, however, I found a high-profile online forum that answers Obama’s call about as well as I could have imagined: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog on the Atlantic Monthly’s web site.

Coates takes great pains to curate a respectful, honest comment section—a task most of his Atlantic colleagues have abandoned—and his efforts pay off in deliberative spades. The blog attracts a diverse range of readers if the commenters are any indication, and the discussion for the most part achieves a refreshing frankness while avoiding awkward euphemism. As a social scientist, I find myself instinctually drawn to the scholarly frame of cause and effect: what makes Coates’ blog different from other discussion sites in which racial topics are not debated with nearly as much charity? I have my suspicions, but would prefer to answer the question with data. Perhaps a comparative study of a sample of race-blogs categorized along theoretically relevant lines? Might be a good excuse to acquaint myself with a few new literatures . . .

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