What is “the race card”?
Is it as mysterious as a Tarot card? What does it mean to play it? Should everybody keep one on hand (or in one’s hand) just in case? Should it be permanently folded?
Like many political and media cliches, “playing the race card” gets plenty of usage and little head-on analysis. At its broadest, it means any strategic injection of a racial issue into a conflict to gain advantage.
At that level of abstraction, “playing the race card” doesn’t imply that underlying racial issues are false—just that they’ve been put in play.
At its narrowest, however, and in its most frequent usage, “playing the race card” is an accusation—the claim that racism fuels some harmful action against the accuser.
In those cases, a pejorative insinuation attaches—that the accuser is charging racism purely for personal advantage, or, as Richard Thompson Ford puts it, making “false or exaggerated claims of bias” that “piggyback on real instances of victimization.”
Once again—and it couldn’t happen at a better time—the world of serious scholarship comes to the rescue of a grateful public and media.
Ford’s The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse brings the sharp, nuanced yet stylish analysis of a 42-year-old black Harvard Law School graduate (same 1991 class as Barack Obama) and Stanford law professor to a pattern of behavior and media events that can elude you until you recall the examples:
Ford cites the Tawana Brawley case. The “Clarence Thomas v. Anita Hill” hearing—described by Thomas as a “high-tech lynching.” O.J.‘s murder trial. Rapper Kanye West’s declaration that President Bush “hates black people,” making his handling of Katrina’s victims racist. Philosopher Cornel West’s reminiscence of how his “blood began to boil” when nine cabs passed him by at Park Avenue and 60th. Michael Jackson’s contention that his record company’s “racist conspiracy” drove down his sales.
There are more: Actor Danny Glover’s complaint to the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission when a driver refused to let him ride in the front seat so he could stretch his legs. Oprah’s outrage after getting turned away after hours from a Hermes store in Paris. Jay-Z’s boycott of Cristal champagne after its owner made cracks about its hip-hop clientele.
No one said these last few paragraphs would be a nostalgia trip.
Ford astutely sees these events as linked by family resemblance, but still in need of individual analysis. And so he offers much, mixing the sarcasm of a journalist with the exacting logic of a law professor.
Ford understands term-of-art legal doctrines such as “disparate impact” in evaluating racism in discrimination law, but he never loses his pragmatic, common-sense grasp of how social problems arise, and how to solve them. The result? A superbly enlightening reflection on how America should confront its authentic legacy of racism.
Ford’s overarching argument rides on his firm belief that there are fewer racists today, leaving a society of “racism without racists”—a legacy more than a subgroup.
That leads him to reject Kanye West’s “race card” attack on Bush. Katrina produced disproportionate black victims not because of racism, Ford argues, but because racist history left New Orleans’ blacks in lower-lying areas, with many too poor to afford cars.
Ford brings a similar independent angle to Cornel West’s complaint that racist cabdrivers discriminate against black Americans. Ford largely attributes the decision to fear of putatively high-crime areas, a fear he suggests West shared by parking what West called his “rather elegant” car in a “safe parking lot” on the East Side, before cabbing to Harlem.
At this point, you may wonder: Is Ford simply another aggressive black conservative? He’s not—he considers himself an old-fashioned liberal, favoring integration and affirmative action, though less friendly to diversity quotas. He skewers figures from both the right and left.
Ford seeks, it seems, a sensible middle. He fears that a “national patois” of racism rhetoric blinds us to the real thing, stoking counterproductive results. Even worse, it stirs advocates of other allegedly oppressed interest groups, such as obese people, to model their complaints on laws forged to fight racism, a “racism by analogy” strategy.
You can surmise Ford’s attitude toward it from his tart phrase that “Fat is not the new black.” He questions, albeit fair-mindedly, the animal rights movement’s invocation of slavery and the Holocaust in its attacks on the meat industry, the gay rights movement’s analogies to laws against miscegenation, and the smokers rights movement’s allusions to Jim Crow.
Does Ford believe racism no longer exists in American society? Not at all. Accusations of racism should be kept to such cases. But social problems that stem from multiple factors call for an eye on the big picture, not single-cause reductionism.
The Race Card is hardly the only book to attack the opportunism that arises from emotionally satisfying charges of racism. Some, like the recently published Stupid Black Men: How To Play the Race Card and Lose by Larry Elder, the black libertarian L.A. talk-show host, display their own opportunism.
Elder, for instance, vulgarizes the topic by coming on too strong, a la Bill O’Reilly, tossing insults in pages laden with simplistic observations. (Elder’s chapter headings suggest his respect for others: “Stupid Black Leaders,” “Stupid Black Politicians,” “Stupid Black Entertainers,” etc.)
No one, however, has combined Ford’s sophisticated use of political theory and law with such punchy prose. One may disagree with Ford on whether we now live in a “post-racism” society, but The Race Card brilliantly forces thinking on practices such as profiling to new levels of candor and complexity.
Were the author and Obama pals at Harvard? Who knows? But on the evidence of this book, Ford would make an incisive attorney general.
Meanwhile, is there any academic out there ready to take on the “elitism” or “bitterness” cards? It might be nice to weed them from the deck before they catch on.