Saturday, August 02, 2008

Playing the Race Card

By sheer luck, two things coincided last week: I began reading Kevin Kruse's wonderful book, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2005) and I saw an unusually acerbic exchange between journalists David Brooks and Mark Shields about the McCain campaign's charge that Barack Obama had "played the race card." Obama, as we all know, said in a speech that John McCain and his people are trying to whip up fear about his candidacy because he doesn't look like the presidents featured on our currency (although given the state of our economy, I think that Obama's first presidential act should be to put a picture of George W. Bush on every denomination.)

Now, as someone who is far more progressive than Obama on many issues, including race I suspect, this nevertheless won him my sympathy, and I raced to my computer to make my first campaign donation to --as he is now called-- "the presumptive Democratic nominee."

I too have been accused of "playing the race card," more than once, and in settings various, including comments on this blog. What people mean, as I understand it, is that at moments when I have believed it was crucial to talk about racism, particularly in a situation where damage was being done, I have been accused of introducing, not naming, "race" as an issue. This has become a standard tactic of the contemporary conservative repertoire, whether in the political sphere, the blogosphere, the university, or any other setting where power sharing, rights or equality might be at issue. The outcome that is intended is that I -- and others engaged in similar work -- should be made to feel embarassed, and that I should shut up or recant so that the conversation can go on. What it then means is that we cannot speak about racist behavior as anything but an accident or a misunderstanding, when in fact we need to talk about whether institutional racism (at the very least) is at work, and what we might do to correct the problem so that we can proceed in a fair way.

But of course, as in all things bloggable, "the race card" is more complex and devious than my little life can illustrate. It is a phrase that came to national attention, we should recall, in 1995 when prosecutor Christopher Darden accused defense attorney Johnny Cochran of having introduced -- not pointed out, mind you, but introduced -- race and white racism as a possible factor in the O.J. Simpson trial. That both men were black was confusing to many observers, but shouldn't be. Rather, as Linda Williams points out in her book Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson (Princeton University Press, 2001) the use of this phrase is deliberately intended to rescript legal or political narratives as melodrama. In other words, when one accuses one's opponent of "playing the race card" one deliberately diverts attention from the cultural, political and social facts of the history of race in America by claining that such things are -- well, only history. And it articulates racial discourse itself as merely a highly subjective, emotional state of mind, rather than a multi-faceted epistemology that Americans bring to their contemporary social, economic and political encounters because of their collective history.

Linguistically, and socially, the phrase plays another function as well. Some words are constricted by their past, and yet the ideas they express have not fallen out of use: hence, they require euphemisms. Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, for example, has argued in a book and several articles that there are only very selective, usually private and contextual, uses of the word Nigger that are not readily perceived as doing harm to social and economic relationships in the contemporary United States. So instead, polite company has chosen the euphemism "the n-word" which allows one to both reference and disavow the concept that this volatile word calls up. Similarly, I think it has always been unequivically rude to call a person -- as opposed to an act -- racist, even during Jim Crow. Hence, a euphemism was called for that not only stood in for the word "racist," but that could be used to describe anti-racist activists as well. Thus, when someone has "played the race card" it means that we are all acknowledging that race is in play -- the point of conflict is whether that has corrupted the conversation beyond repair (the position of the McCain camp and its surrogates), or whether by talking about race we are describing the complexity of political culture in the twenty-first century United States, as it is embedded in a long and well-documented history of attempts to limit or suppress black political participation (my position.) And despite the significance of Obama's candidacy, that history is not over.

This is where we, the people, may be fortunate in the particular personality traits that Barack Obama brings to the table as a presidential candidate. Often there is no way to respond to melodrama but -- well, melodramatically. And Obama doesn't do that. He doesn't have a melodramatic bone in his body. He seems capable of taking almost endless abuse without losing his temper; of responding to nonsense politely, and then walking away. Which returns the Obama narrative to its origins as a story about heroism, not suffering (hat tip).

What is even more interesting to me is that Obama may actually be doing something he claims to care about: changing political culture in the United States. Because of his insistence on a heroic narrative, rather than a melodramatic one, members of what is now called the MSM (main-stream media) seem to be following along and not allowing such events to turn into festering cultural sores that divert us from critical national issues. For example, in a piece that is unusually insightful for a centrist news weekly, Andrew Romano of Newsweek has called the McCain campaign's attempt to slur Obama for talking about (his own) race Playing the 'playing the race card' card, and exposed this moment as campaign strategy intended to obfuscate the issues, not political information. Furthermore, in response to David Brooks' comment on the Lehrer News Hour that "talking about race in this context [of a political campaign], I think, is the worst thing," Mark Shields snapped back, "the charge yesterday that Obama had introduced and played the race card was so over-the-top by the McCain campaign. I mean, it was truly -- it boggled the mind. And it went beyond any concept of rationality." As Shields had pointed out earlier, "Now, did he raise the race issue? The race issue is with him every day of his life. When you see his picture, the race issue is there."

Which brings me back to Kevin Kruse. As Kruse argues, the New Right's claim that their movement and ideology are "color blind" is grounded in the history of white racism. He argues persuasively that the roots of this claim are in the alternative forms of segregation whites constructed when Jim Crow was struck down by the courts and civil rights activists and urban progressives, for similar and different reasons, sought to enforce the law. By the 1970's, when massive resistance to desegregation had failed, southern whites used their economic mobility to re-segregate themselves in the suburbs. Kruse points to what I think is an interesting paradox -- that the structural successes of the civil rights movement forced whites to displace their desire for racial separation onto new social and spacial formations where racism became "invisible" because it was not written into the law. As he also argues, the strand of conservative ideology and political discourse that culminated in the Reagan Revolution was developed in a suburban landscape whose defining halllmark was the absence, except as low wage workers, of people of color. "Inside such a homogenous setting," Kruse writes, "it is perhaps easy to understand how some have accepted without question the claims of conservative activists that their movement was -- and still in -- 'color blind' and unassociated with class politics. Indeed, in the suburbs, with no other colors in sight and no other classes in contention, such claims seem plausible. How could modern conservatism be shaped by forces that weren't there?"

Kruse -- who, by the way, although he is tenured at Princeton, lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, a classic case of a city abandoned by whites when faced with demands for black economic equality (good on you, Kevin) -- points us to how someone like David Brooks, could say that while he was "fine with Obama's "grand speech" on race in Philadelphia, and that he does not think that either candidate can talk about race or racism in any other than a "demeaning" or "dirty way."

Perhaps. But the rest of us can, and I think it will be a central role for historians to play in this campaign to do so. And while you are doing your research take some time to go here and do what I did: play the race card. Give a few dollars to the Obama campaign.


Anonymous said...

Do you feel as strongly about ageism as you do about racism? Do you feel that older people are discriminated against in the US? Do you feel that either of the candidates or their supporters are guilty of "playing the age card"?

Tenured Radical said...

anonymous 5:21 -

In the order that you ask: no; yes; no.


davidjhemmer said...

That's a lovely piece on the race card. Whether the "race card" is appropriate or not misses the point, which is that Obama played it in a entirely inappropriate way, he didn't follow suit so to speak.

He accused the McCain campaign, in advance, of racism. He has offered no evidence of this, and since it was just a prediction of the future, it is impossible to rebut.

Here is the actual quote from the first playing of the race card on June 20th:

"They're going to try to make you afraid of me. He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?"

Anonymous said...

Is it just "southern whites" who have segregated themselves racially? What color are your neighbors?

Tenured Radical said...

anonymous 10:07 --

Well, Kevin Kruse wrote about Atlanta, so that would have to be southern whites. But if I can quote from my own piece:

"Jersey City, New Jersey, a classic case of a city abandoned by whites when faced with demands for black economic equality "

New Jersey was north of the Mason-Dixon the last time I looked.

And I live in a northern, multi-class interracial urban neighborhood, that is black, white, Hispanic and Asian, in a city that is still struggling with the long aftereffects of white flight -- not that it's any of your business. Take a leaf out of right-wing prof's book and *engage* when you wish to represent a different ideological perspective.


davidjhemmer said...

Reverse white flight!

I thought the following TNR story was interesting:

about how some cities (e.g. Chicago) are shifting so wealthy whites are living in the downtown area and poorer minorities in the "suburbs".

Bradley Spahn said...

Right-wing prof,

I have to disagree in the strongest terms with your suggestion that Obama played the race card in an innapropriate way. Racist allegations from right-wing sources have been thrown around for months, whether its been accusations that he's not a natural-born citizen, that he is a muslim, that he used a terrorist fist-bump, or that his wife Michelle is a Black-nationalist militant.

These have come from national publications(TR rightly points to Human Events as one such source) as well as viral emails, and even the TN GOP with their press release "Anti-Semites for Obama." All of these attacks pre-date Obama's comments on June 20th.

Further, I can say that anecdotally speaking, they're the kind of thing I hear all the time working in Vicksburg, MI or visiting Moscow, PA, hardly southern white towns. To put it quite forthrightly, the race card has been in play for months. To expect Obama not to recognize it in his public remarks is tantamount to expecting him to ignore a major threat to his candidacy.

The race card was played from the bottom of the deck long before the McCain campaign said so, but it wasn't "played" by Obama, rather it was "played" by the politically opportunistic fringes of the republican party. To suggest otherwise is to ignore a set of facts that has existed for months.

Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as the "race card" in the form that it is being used here. In employment and the private sector it still sits perched above everyones' heads but in politics it has merely become a distraction from the real issues.

Fact is that one of the presumed nominees is black, there has never been a way around it. If Hillary had won the nomination then there would be the "woman card" and that would be tripping us up just the same. Do you think that a proverbial card needs to be played to tell the voting public that Obama is black, this isn't the age of the radio, there is no avoiding the knowledge that race is going to and has always been a part of this election cycle. In a country where the "minorities" have been growing exponentially from presidential election to presidential election it is only natural that a nominee of a different race would emerge. I shouldn't be surprised by the reaction to the supposed playing of the "race card" yet somewhere deep down I had hoped that the candidates were above it, but their integrity seems more in line with the spineless pundits.

It would have been too simple for both parties to ignore race and focus on the issues, but we, the voting public, also knew that doing such would be impossible. That being said, I would hope that this disappears as quickly as it appeared so that the candidate can try to focus on the issues that had almost broken through to the forefront where they should have always been before this controversy arose.

If the "race card" is being played then why can't the "environment card" or the "war in Iraq card" or even the "discrimination card" be played as well. The "discrimination card" is close to the "race card" but actually means something to a large group of people, rather than simply pointing out the obvious in Obama's skin tone.

-Moderate student

Tenured Radical said...

Good points all -- but here's a point I should perhaps have made more strongly in the essay: there is no such thing in common parlance as "the woman card" or "the age card" -- but the phrase "the race card" has come into colloquial use. Why is *this* the form of discrimination that dare not speak its name?

One of the answers I would propose is that in politic society we see things like age and gender difference as positive, but our cultural history makes the invocation of racial difference *always* negative.

I mean, why not talk about race in a presidential campaign? Why would that be inherently divisive? I why is it ok for people to say, as some do, that it would be a big step forward to have a black president, but it wouldn't be ok to say "oh my god, I can't bear the idea of another white president."


JackDanielsBlack said...

Tenured, I have to say I disagree with your last comment. Hillary was accused several times of playing the gender card -- for example, when she pointed out that debate interviewers were asking her questions first. Let us not falsify history -- Hillary (though she had many other things going against her, including the running commentary of her clueless husband) was the victim of sex discrimination during the last primary -- or maybe you don't get to the airport enough to have seen those "Hillary nutcrackers" that were on offer in airport shops. And when she complained about it, she got accused of playing the gender card.

Tenured Radical said...


You are right that Hillary and her supporters were accused of crying foul on the gender issue -- and I would agree with you that they were right. I don;t think there's anything in my piece that falsifies history, as you put it. But was such a phrase as "gender card" invoked? And even if it was, does accusing someone of "seeing" gender have the same cultural valence as accusing them of "seeing" gender? I don;t think so -- in part, because conservatives, male and female, believe that gender difference is a good thing and that the differences between men and women should be celebrated and supported. Many conservatives believe that gender hierarchy is natural and good. So I don't think that kind of conversation is stigmatizing in the same way.



JackDanielsBlack said...

I think the phrase "playing the gender card" is not uncommon; just google it and see what comes up, for instance this blog by Bitch PhD:

To me the two terms are used in the same way and for the same purpose -- to immunize the speaker from charges of racism or sexism. And I personally think that in this country today sexism is more of a problem (at least among the educated) than racism -- though both are bad enough. I also think that the course of the Democratic primaries affirms my belief.

Jennifer said...

Perhaps, to offer another perspective in the thread about "gender card" vs. "race card" -- as one commenter noted, both are bad--why must we hierachize whether there are more instances of racism vs. sexism (or vice versa) among the educated (and I'm not sure what that means--those in academia?).

One of my personal frustrations is feeling like there is this desire to somehow justify paying more attention to race vs. gender or sexuality vs. race or gender vs. class when there seem like plenty of biases and acts of discrimination to go around.

So rather than seeing the democratic primaries as examples of whether sexism trumped racism, how about we start to focus on WHY John McCain or any of the other Republican nominees (or John Edwards or any of the other Democratic nominees) weren't asked to weigh in on topics of race and gender and sexuality.

If anything, doesn't the last election (and every other presidential election that came before) show that your odds are still much better to have power in this country if you are a straight white male, which means that white heterosexual privilege is still the default law of the land?

Debrah said...


Jon Stewart plays all the cards.