WATCH: Author Theodore Johnson on why white Americans can struggle to talk about race

Theodore Johnson, a retired U.S. Navy commander and Washington Post columnist, has spent years studying U.S. history, civil rights, and how the country can move forward on issues concerning race — including examining why many white Americans have difficulty accepting a diversifying country.

The U.S. has become much more multiracial, and more racially and ethnically diverse, than what the U.S. Census has previously recorded. As the country diversifies, Black people and other historically marginalized groups are “acquiring more power that they didn’t have in earlier versions of America,” the author told the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff in an “America at a Crossroads” report airing Wednesday. “The main characters of the American story suddenly feel like they’re being pushed to the margins. Like now they’re an extra in someone else’s story.”

Johnson said he can sometimes understand when people feel like they’re “being saddled with the blame” for the country’s long history of racism.

“What I don’t understand,” he said, “is the way it’s politically operationalized or weaponized to turn us against one another just so folks can win elections.”

Johnson, whose maternal great-grandfather was a sharecropper raised in Georgia during the Jim Crow era, said he often leans into his personal story when talking about race with white conservative Americans.

Instead of talking about the latest news about racism in the country, “I talk about my American journey, my family’s American journey, and almost invariably, people will find commonalities between my family’s story,” Johnson said. They may have an immigrant story, or a story about growing up in poverty or rural communities, he added.

“Once those individual stories — the human element — there’s some connection there, then you can start talking about some of the structural and systematic issues or systemic issues that the nation needs to address,” he said.

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