Discussing Race and Ethnicity in America

This post is part of our blog series Integrate Current Events Into Your Courses, which aims to provide lecture topics and corresponding course books that will help your students think critically about today’s conversations on social inequality. Today, we discuss race, ethnicity, and class in America. 

Week by week, students see news headlines swing back and forth, from health care to immigration, from women’s rights to poverty, to much more. Their understanding of, and their personal feelings toward, these various issues can invoke strong responses as they have these conversations in class or on the quad. This is, in part, because their lens on the issues are influenced by race and ethnicity. How then do faculty guide students to have fruitful conversations on the issues that impact our lives today?

In Race and Ethnicity in America, sociologist and demographer John Iceland writes about where to start the conversation when guiding students to discuss race and ethnicity:

Discussing racial issues can be difficult. It is often more challenging than talking about many other sociological topics—such as changes in the occupational distribution of American workers or regional migration patterns—because race can be very personal. For many Americans, race is an important part of their identity. It affects how they view themselves, their aspirations, and their communities. …

These conversations about race are typically not that productive, as people are not really listening to one another. Their arguments, more generally speaking, also are often not based on empirical evidence and instead rely on anecdotes.

The goal of this book is to address this issue by providing such an empirical overview of patterns and trends in racial and ethnic inequality, as well as their causes and consequences. In doing so, I offer a social scientific basis for much-needed conversations about race. Having this kind of basic information is critical to reduce the extent to which people talk past one another with their own alleged facts accompanying their own opinions. Then people can be honest about their interests and values and recognize that these also play a key role in informing their policy preferences. In short, we need to cut through the clutter of empirical falsehoods to have real substantive discussions about racial inequality in the United States and what to do about it.

Read a sample chapter of Race and Ethnicity in America. And use these instructor resources to help prepare for your course. Feel free to see our other titles on race and class as well as other titles in the Sociology in the 21st Century Series.

How do you begin your discussions about race and ethnicity in your classes?