Race Card Yields Nothing But Bad Hands

In the United States, racism is the big elephant in the middle of the room. No one wants to acknowledge its existence. People skirt around the elephant to avoid bumping a trunk or treading on a large toenail. But, despite their game of pretending otherwise, its existence threatens to bring the whole building down. However, at other times, a person knocks down a painting or puts a hole in the plaster but blames it on the elephant. This is called playing the race card.

Richard Thompson Ford’s new book, “The Race Card: How Bluffing about Bias Makes Race Relations Worse,” examines the fine line between ignoring the elephant and blaming everything on the beast. Ford, a Stanford law professor, leads the reader across this racial relations tightrope of discerning when “complaints of racial prejudice are valid and appropriate and when...they are exaggerated, paranoid, or simply dishonest” but never presents any truly satisfying answers.

The work’s premised on the idea that racism has become so socially unacceptable that accusations of racism carry enormous consequences. In a society where few overt racists remain, the gray area of what counts as racism has become larger than ever. This ambiguity makes it difficult to differentiate between real racism and unhappy circumstance.

Ford’s first chapter, “Racism without Racists,” illustrates how the continuing presence of racism but the lack of obvious perpetrators serves as a catalyst for playing the race card. With the dearth of out-and-out racists making it difficult to blame someone, the wrong people can fall victim to the race card and get unfairly punished.

As a result of the attention paid to racism and the punishments doled out to racists, comparing other types of persecution to racism elicits uproar. Other marginalized groups, such as homosexuals or obese people, identify their causes with the civil rights struggle to gain legitimacy. But Ford cautions against comparing something like gay marriage to miscegenation. Yes, it grabs people’s attention, and it may even silence opponents, but ultimately the comparison serves to undermine everyone’s struggle for greater rights and acceptance. The playing of the race card dilutes the next hand’s potency; racism becomes a nebulous, meaningless phrase.

And it is this issue that Ford confronts in the aptly named section “Defining Discrimination.” When racism can be nearly anything, then what does not count as discrimination? For Ford, discrimination does not work both ways; he has no time for those complaining about “reverse racism.” Rather, he focuses on how playing the race card ignores more substantive social goals.

“Contested Goals,” his next chapter, reaches the same conclusions as the one that comes before it, making it slightly superfluous. Once again he reiterates his belief that integration should be an essential goal for the current civil rights movement and that it all too often gets obscured by debates over quotas and themed college housing.

Unfortunately, “The Race Card” doesn’t tell us how any of these goals should be accomplished. It doesn’t help that Ford equivocates so that the problem one must solve eludes understanding. He presents information, then seems to switch it around, until one isn’t sure whether it’s racism or not.

And since each chapter’s subject is so different, the overall message of the book gets lost in the segments. Questions that Ford should have answered linger well after one finishes the book. When is it appropriate to bring race into a debate? Are prejudices so ingrained in our culture that no one is to blame? How can one ever know if racism’s to blame when racism still is never quite defined?

Ford does offer a glimmer of hope that eventually, maybe one day, these questions will be answered. He does latch onto some specifics about how we can move past playing the race card. He does diagnose the problem of the race card: it hinders our progress in abolishing racism. And he does label the culprit that prevents us from moving forward: the terms of our current racial dialogue. The language of racial dialogue is archaic, and its failure to adequately deal with current issues ensures that the race card keeps getting played. Without new dialogue, Ford argues, the race card will not go away.

At the end of “The Race Card,” we know that until we can explain what the elephant in the room actually looks like, it won’t go away. But we can’t even begin to name it, because Ford hasn’t given us a single new word to work with. And so the elephant remains in the room.

—Staff writer Candace I. Munroe can be reached at cimunroe @fas.harvard.edu.