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A race conversation? What are you talking about?

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Thank God for Barack Obama. For until his "More Perfect Union" speech last Tuesday, it seems it never occurred to anyone that America needed to talk about race. "Maybe this'll be the beginning of a conversation," Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan proclaimed on "Meet the Press." According to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, just the fact of Obama's address proves that a "national dialogue on race" is "essential." The Chicago Tribune reported that "many voters, black and white, say they were moved by Obama's speech ... which they see as a long-awaited invitation to begin an honest, calm national dialogue about race." Newspaper editorial boards agree. In the words of the San Diego Union-Tribune: "Prodding Americans to confront their racial differences is, by itself, an accomplishment of historical proportions."

Because so many people agree on this brilliant new strategy to heal our national wounds, I can only assume that I'm the one missing something. Because when one luminary after another smacks his forehead like someone who forgot to have a V8 in epiphanic awe over the genius of Obama's call for a national conversation on race, all I can do is wonder: "What on Earth are you people talking about?"

"Universities were moving to incorporate the issues Mr. Obama raised into classroom discussions and course work," the New York Times reported within 48 hours of the speech.

Oh, thank goodness Obama fired the starter's pistol in the race to discuss race. Here I'd been under the impression that every major university (and minor one for that matter) in the country already had boatloads of courses -- often entire majors -- dedicated to race in America. I'd even read somewhere that professors had incorporated racial themes and issues into classes on everything from Shakespeare to the mating habits of snail darters. And scratching faintly in the back of my mind, I felt some vague memory that these same universities recruited black students and other racial minorities, on the grounds that interracial conversations on campus are as important as talking about math, science and literature. A ghost of an image in my mind's eye seemed to reveal African American studies centers, banners for Black History Month and copies of books like "Race Matters" and "The Future of the Race" lined up on shelves at college bookstores.

Were all of the corporate diversity consultants and racial sensitivity seminars mere apparitions in a dream? Also disappearing in the memory hole, apparently, were the debates that followed Hurricane Katrina, Trent Lott's remarks about Strom Thurmond, the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, the publication of "The Bell Curve" and O.J. Simpson's murder trial. Not to mention the ongoing national chatter about affirmative action, racial disparities in prison sentences and racial profiling by law enforcement.

And the thousands of hours of newscasts, television dramas and movies -- remember Oscar-winning films such as 2004's "Crash?" -- dedicated to racial issues? It's as if they never existed, vanishing like the image on a TV screen after the plug's been pulled. The New York Times' six-week Pulitzer Prize-winning series, "How Race Is Lived in America": just an inkblot?

It all seems so otherworldly. I feel like one of the last humans in an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" movie in which all of the pod people are compelled by some alien DNA to pine continually for yet another "conversation" about a topic we've never, ever stopped talking about. And if I just fall asleep, I too can live in the pod-people's dream palace, where every conversation about race is our first conversation about race. Snatching me from any such reverie was this masterful understatement from Thursday's New York Times: "Religious groups and academic bodies, already receptive to Mr. Obama's plea for such a dialogue, seemed especially enthusiastic."

No kidding. Janet Murguia is one such especially enthusiastic person. She hoped, according to the Times, that Obama's speech would help "create a safe space to talk about [race]."

Who is Janet Murguia? Oh, she's just the president of a group called the National Council of La Raza, which -- despite what they'll tell you -- means "the race." In fact, doesn't it seem like the majority of people begging for a "new conversation" on race are the same folks who shout "racist!" at anyone who disagrees with them?

This sort of disconnect between rhetoric and reality is the kind of thing one finds in novels by Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Milan Kundera. To my un-rehabilitated ear, Murguia sounds like an old Soviet apparatchik saying that what the U.S.S.R. really needs is an open and frank conversation about the importance of communism.

Why do voluptuaries of racial argy-bargy want another such dialogue? For some, it's to avoid actually dealing with unpleasant facts. But for others -- like La Raza or the college professors scrambling to follow Obama's lead -- when they say we need more conversation, they really mean their version of reality should win the day. Substitute "conversation" with "instruction" and you'll have a better sense of where these people are coming from and where they want their "dialogue" to take us.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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