Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reflecting on the Race Card

In class yesterday, we discussed "the race card" and its counterpart, "the 'race card' card". To say that someone played "the race card" is to say they made an accusation that something or someone is racist maliciously, in bad faith, or (perhaps) with insufficient evidence. "The 'race card' card", then, is complaining that a statement which allegedly makes an accusation of racism is illegitimate or out-of-bounds as a tool for shunting the discussion away from the merits of the claim.

We talked in class about how the fears which undergird the race card were legitimate. Given (a) the widespread belief that racism is deeply, gravely wrong, and (b) the lack of widespread agreement on what racism is, being tagged with the charge of "racist" has the twin properties of being potentially career-ending and extremely unpredictable. I analogized it to how the death penalty was described in Furman v. Georgia -- akin to being struck by lightning. It is no wonder that people are very anxious around the subject. "The 'race card' card" is an attempt to defuse this seemingly dangerous power.

On the other hand, the attempt to silence "the race card" via "the 'race card' card" is severely problematic on its own. Most obviously, questions about whether something is racist or supports racial inequality are really important, and it is a discussion that needs to be had. We can't say we're trying to build the best, most just country America can be while effectively exiling a huge area of moral dispute from critical inquiry. And while there are legitimate reasons why people are wary of that conversations (see above), there are also illegitimate ones -- namely, people content with the status quo who would rather not see it challenged, rightly or not. The potency of "the 'race card' cad" allows them the ability to permanently defer and thus suppress that discussion.

One bit of evidence for the latter effect is that "the 'race card' card" is deployed exceptionally broadly, even in situations where nobody is being called a racist, even in situations where the prospect of racial injustice isn't on the table. I thought of this while reading this analysis of President Obama's recent polling. The poll notes that Obama's approval ratings are quite low amongst Whites (36/61), while still being relatively high amongst non-Whites (67/32). The piece doesn't say "thus, Whites are racist." It doesn't even really say anything about racial justice issues at all. The only normative conclusion it draws is that, in a country that has a lot of White people, losing Whites badly is not a good sign for one's re-election prospect.

And yet, what was the first response that got broadcast on CNN?
Well, Jack, it’s nice to see CNN is still a valued member of the president’s re-election campaign. Let’s just further divide an already divided country by trying to make this about race. The president is in over his head and people are beginning to realize this administration has only made a bad economy worse.

In effect, this is accusing CNN of playing the "race card" for Obama, simply by virtue of the article making note of a demographic split. That is less indicative of someone genuinely worried about being "hit by lightning", and more someone who wants to shut down a discussion before it starts.

My own views on this topic are close to those expressed by Professor Hirsch, encouraging a default towards discussion and a presumption of good faith. That cuts both ways -- we should assume that a person advocating a policy we believe to have racially unjust effects does not consciously harbor malicious thoughts towards the group in question, but we should also assume that the person making the accusation of potential racial problems is doing so honestly and because the legitimately believe there is a problem that needs addressing.

1 comment:

PG said...

To say that someone played "the race card" is to say they made an accusation that something or someone is racist maliciously, in bad faith, or (perhaps) with insufficient evidence.

It seems implicit but is not explicitly stated in your post that the "'race card' card" intrinsically involves accusing someone of malice or bad faith. I have never seen anyone use the RC card merely to call for folks to obtain more evidence that is realistically obtainable. (As opposed to the evidence of "What's in someone's heart," which is of course inherently impossible to know.)

I once criticized the lack of concern in a small Pennsylvania town for a murder committed while the white killers were yelling racist slurs at their Latino victim, and people told me that using such slurs while in a fight was no reason to think that the attack might have been racially motivated. Apparently for some folks, racist slurs just come out of their mouths when they're in a dispute with a person of another race, and there's nothing to tell you about motive when someone kills a guy while yelling "Die nigger!" that you wouldn't also get from his yelling "Die asshole!"

This is what makes the RC card particularly toxic: the person using it is not only directing attention away from the merits of the claim, but making a personal attack by saying that you must be raising the issue of race in bad faith. The redirection is not just to some other, nonracial issue (e.g. whether the killers can plausibly claim they were acting somehow in "defense" of the underage girl the deceased was with), but to the personalized issue of what motivated the person who raised race as an issue to have done so when clearly race is irrelevant here.