Department of Sociology

Conversation Stoppers

Tue, November 16, 2010

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On the left and the right, recent episodes in politics 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.

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.

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' 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."

Although some believe 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."

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