Anyone who has been paying even cursory attention in recent years, including around the most recent election, will recognize that the state of discourse in this country is in sore and urgent need of repair. Our collective conversation has broken down on virtually every major issue, from immigration to policing to inequality between groups to our response to COVID-19.
The most fraught subjects are often those that touch race or identity. When these topics come up, anything less than a full-throated endorsement of discrimination and racial animus as the primary and root cause of current tensions can lead to conversation-killing accusations of racism, sexism, transphobia, or other forms of resentment and hostility. While sometimes warranted, these verbal attacks are too carelessly applied.
Even more concerning, many of the same people making broad use of those terms have been reluctant to engage with the way that usage has itself contributed to the current broken discourse. In certain moments, this has been crystal clear. On the morning after election day in 2016, before I even got out of bed, I picked up my phone and looked at the headlines. Trump had won. I imagined the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center—the would-be site of Clinton’s victory party—with a spotless and untouched floor, save for hundreds of helium balloons that had drifted down to their resting place overnight.
I knew I wasn’t alone in my surprise, but I wasn’t yet aware of just how varied people’s responses were. Then I saw the sentiments on social media among my left-leaning friends in the days immediately following the 2016 election. They included comments like “clearly half of the population is racist” or the slightly more charitable, “I’m not saying half the country is racist, but clearly half the population thinks racism isn’t a deal-breaker.”
Fast-forward four years. In the days following the 2020 election, while votes were still being counted, one of the most common themes I watched emerge among the same crowd was again shock and dismay. This time, however, the reactions weren’t about the outcome—after all, Biden quickly appeared to be in the lead—they were about how close the race was. Indignant voices demanded an answer to the question: “How could it have been this close?” I saw some of the same memes recirculated from 2016, including the one about racism not being a deal-breaker for half the country. Apparently, the inability or unwillingness to think through the sustained climate that contributed to Trump’s election in 2016 hasn’t changed.
This is all to say that a sense of despair over the state of discourse is reasonable. I understand it, and moreover, I am not by nature an optimist and am not inclined to minimize it. (Swedish professor and author Hans Rosling referred to himself as a “possibilist”—that may be a better fit for me too.) However, I am hopeful, and there are reasons for this.
I teach sociology—one of the most politically left-leaning disciplines there is—at a large, public university. I developed a course called “The Sociology of Political Polarization: Bigots and Snowflakes” and a more traditional course called “Social Problems.” In both classes, we seize controversial subjects and dive in. We discuss sensitive and contentious topics including affirmative action, immigration, policing, racism, anti-Semitism, and a wide range of other issues. Among my students—these future leaders and members of the workforce, these voters at the beginning of their political lives—I see individuals preparing to go out into the world and I feel a cautious optimism.
While it’s certainly true that some students are poised to emerge as their generation’s angry and indignant voices, others are genuinely trying to make sense of what’s going on and are trying to understand complex problems in a nuanced manner. For example, in a recent class, I asked whether an opposition to affirmative action, a policy designed to benefit members of marginalized groups, was sufficient evidence to conclude someone is racist. This isn’t a silly straw-man question—it reflects a fundamental idea promulgated by the highly influential anti-racism movement. As the class was held on Zoom, running a poll was easy. I queried the class of 45 students: Is it possible to oppose affirmative action for nonracist reasons? Well over 90% responded yes.
A few weeks later, we watched a video clip of Brown University economist and public intellectual Glenn Loury discussing his own opposition to affirmative action. Now that we were looking at a specific example, I again polled the class to see if they thought he was racist for his position. Once more, over 91% of the class voted no. I then asked if they would consider him racist if he were white (professor Loury is Black). Two-thirds of the class didn’t think it would be racist if a white person made the same argument.
In the spring of 2019, I spent an entire 80-minute class leading a discussion on Liam Neeson and cancel culture. Around that time, during an interview, Neeson had admitted to once seeking revenge on the Black community after he learned that someone very close to him had been brutally raped. All the victim knew of her attacker was that he was Black. As an attempt to defend himself against charges of racism, he reportedly told ABC, “If she had said an Irish or a Scot or a Brit or a Lithuanian it would—I know it would—have had the same effect.” He continued, “I was trying to show honor, to stand up for my dear friend in this terribly medieval fashion.” I oversaw a conversation led by two Black students about whether, based on this incident, anyone could reasonably conclude that Neeson was racist. With respect for each other, the students took opposite sides on the issue. They were of different minds about the extent to which Neeson’s assertion that he would have done the same regardless of the assailant’s ethnic group mattered. Ultimately, they agreed to disagree about whether Neeson should be “canceled.”
In the same class a few weeks later, building on that conversation, a white student who grew up in a small town in rural Illinois confessed that, when he was in middle school, he’d called a Black student the N-word to his face. At the time he recounted the story, he was visibly remorseful. He asked the class quietly, “Should I be canceled?” Not one of his classmates said yes.
When Martina Navratilova penned an op-ed in the Times of London—also in early 2019—taking the position that trans women shouldn’t be permitted to compete in women’s category sports, she was publicly denounced as transphobic. In class, I asked, “Do you think it is possible to hold this opinion and not be labeled transphobic?” When one student conceded that she didn’t think that was possible, I asked the class if the labeling in this case was a good thing. Many of the students said that it was not. They didn’t think someone should be labeled transphobic for expressing an opinion on an issue that should be open to debate.
I am not suggesting that there isn’t still a problem with an unforgiving and hegemonic narrative on campus and, more broadly, in our political conversation. After all, fully one-third of the class thought that professor Loury’s words coming from someone with white skin would have made the speaker racist. I raise these examples to demonstrate that there’s more room for conversation and discussion than often appears to be the case. There are students who are primed and ready to think broadly—but they need to be supported and led.
To be sure, a gentle touch is required—some students visibly bristled last week when a classmate, on the topic of progress on racism, observed that “clearly life for members of minority groups has improved given that several students in the class wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be at this institution 70 years ago.”
But, the conversation should not stop there. Although class ended just then, if we’d had the time, I would have acknowledged the palpable discomfort of some students, while allowing an exploration of the comment to proceed. It was an opportunity to try to thread the needle between a speaker’s intent and a listener’s perception. I can imagine saying, “I know that comment may have rankled some of you. Do you think the intent was to suggest that people should stop fighting racism wherever it lurks? Do you think it was a reminder to not ignore the progress that’s been made? Can both of those things be true at the same time?”
Without question, some students, as with some members of any group, are impossible to reach. There are those who see the world as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo do—as a series of interactions and policies that can be neatly divided into categories of racist or anti-racist and where one’s intent doesn’t matter—and nothing will sway them from that vantage point. But I see two other groups of students who can be constructively engaged. One simply hasn’t had the opportunity to work through the negative implications of seeing the world in this narrow manner. Once they do, they often start to see some of its more problematic and concerning conclusions. The other group intuits, without being told, that there’s something not quite right with this simplistic and binary line of thinking. Yet throughout their education and in the broader social conversation, they’ve been given no alternative framework, no tools, and no language to think through or articulate their own concerns. This has to change.
Change won’t be easy, but it is possible. The types of conversations I have described require teachers who think broadly and openly—traits that are often difficult to find. This scarcity reality reflects our well-intentioned, yet misguided, education system. Instructors at all levels are trained in institutes of higher education that perpetuate precisely this way of thinking. They then bring that knowledge and perspective into their classrooms. By the time students cross my path, many have never been exposed to anything different. While there is no easy solution to this circular and systemic narrowness, there is a better path.
A true shift will require thousands of individual teachers from middle school through university to commit themselves to modeling a new form of inquisitive behavior—one where we don’t have all the answers, we don’t make assumptions about other people’s intent, and we both understand and teach that reasonable people can come to different conclusions on a wide range of controversial issues. This means questioning the assumptions we make about one another and how we understand the world. And it involves talking openly about the downstream implications of how we relate to one another when we don’t question these things. That critical mass of thousands will be achieved when a broad coalition becomes ready to recognize that the key to improving discourse and solving problems starts in schools.
Some instructors are already there—they see the problem and they are looking for resources and suggestions on how to implement these changes. To them, I refer this classroom-friendly video series on viewpoint diversity and the resources in this link, and I encourage them to learn from each other. I invite those who aren’t yet convinced that change is needed to think through some of the questions I posed to my students and reflect upon the kind of future we continue to build by perpetuating a narrow way of thinking.
The students I described deserve attention. They need opportunities to explore and discuss these topics in all their complexity and nuance, and that means stepping outside simple answers. Nurturing this type of thinking—by providing more opportunities for these guided discussions—may be our best chance to get to constructive conversations on conflictual issues, something we now so desperately need.
Ilana Redstone is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a Founding Faculty Fellow at UATX. She is the founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting and the Faculty Director of The Mill Institute. She is the co-author of Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education and the creator of the Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes video series.