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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

A national conversation about what, exactly?

Protesters gathered to march in, "The peoples power

Protesters gathered to march in, "The peoples power strike against racism" in lower Manhattan on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

A video emerges of University of Oklahoma frat boys on a bus gleefully chanting racial slurs and references to lynchings, and the calls burst forth anew for a national conversation about race.

Great, let's talk. But about what, exactly?

About the racial attitudes we like to think are not quite so overt anymore?

About other chapters of that fraternity and other fraternities at other universities that have engaged in similarly racist behavior without attracting the same national attention?

About how, in the wake of the Oklahoma incident, online comment boards were filled with people defending the frat boys' free speech rights but not criticizing what they said? That's the salient point you want to make?

About the backlash that often mitigates racial progress? Like the poll that found anti-black attitudes got worse in the four years after we elected the nation's first black president.

About how even the millennials, the generation upon whom folks like me pin so much hope for a more enlightened future, have troubling attitudes about race? Of more than 2 million people who've taken an online test that examines racial prejudice, those over 65 had the strongest bias toward white people; second highest were 18-to-24-year-olds. And virtually the same number of under-30 whites as older whites (61 percent to 64 percent) say whites are more intelligent and harder-working than blacks.

About the socialization that starts to produce bias when we're toddlers, from picture books to movies, from Snow White to witches dressed in black? By age 3, the majority of both black and white children shown photos of unfamiliar white and black boys and girls and asked to pick someone to play with, chose a white child. No wonder parents of children of color are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to talk to their kids about race.

About how calls for a national conversation came after Rodney King and Reginald Denny and Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and still we keep calling?

About who even wants to have this conversation? Some 78 percent of blacks but only 28 percent of whites said a discussion about race was important after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Martin. Eighty percent of blacks and 37 percent of whites said the same after Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri.

For many blacks, the conversation is a necessity. For some whites, it's a threat; they fear an accusation is coming.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for the conversation. But what is it by now we don't know?

We know we still erect too many walls, live in too many silos, and too easily think of too many of our fellow humans as others. And there are many kinds of others on that spectrum provoking different kinds of emotion -- harmless contempt for fans of rival sports teams, discomfort with the elderly and disabled, wariness toward those who don't dress like us, hostility toward those who don't speak "our" language. We see and react to lots of tribes. But the hatred based on race is the worst.

I've always felt things would be better if we would only step out of our silos. We do that more than we once did, but not enough. Live together in the same neighborhoods. Go together to the same schools. Worship together at the same churches. It's helped in some places with some people. It surely has moved the needle on racism. But how much?

So sure, let's have a national conversation. But unless that produces national solutions, it's all talk.