Friday, August 8, 2008

Play That Funky Race Card, White Boy

"So nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky. That's essentially the argument they're making."

-- Barack Obama

"Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong."

-- Rick Davis, John McCain campaign manager

Ah, that all-powerful Race Card. I don’t know about you, but I knew it was coming. It was bound to. Barack Obama’s being the Democratic presidential nominee flies in the face of 400 years of this continent’s history, 90% of which was dominated by slavery and Jim Crow. His very presence brings that history the fore, which is very uncomfortable for many. Most prefer not to think about it. Many point to the past 40 years and think that equality has been achieved. But, despite the great gains made by black people in this country, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Instead of acknowledging this, many like to paper over this ugly sore with laudatory proclamations of what a great, multicultural society we have today. Yet, despite these claims, Obama has been suffering a whispering campaign about how he’s a closet Muslim terrorist, his wife a black radical, etc. But it is not the whisperers who are accused of using race as a weapon, but Barack Obama. And all because of that pesky, little Race Card, which, apparently, we blacks have constantly used to get where we are. While I’m still waiting for my Card and still can’t quite figure out what one looks like or how to best use it, the latest claims by the McCain campaign has made me wonder where the Race Card came from. This is what I found:

According to the UK’s Guardian, the term “race card” originated in Britain in 1964. After waves of colored immigrants, race had become such a hot-button issue that politicians on both sides had a gentlemen’s agreement not to exploit it. That was until Tory Peter Griffiths rode the slogan, “Want a nigger neighbor, vote Labour” all the way to victory. Instead of giving the man credit for a catchy slogan, they accused Griffiths of using race like a trump card in whist. Thus, “race card” was born.

Slower than the Mayflower, it took some 30 years before the term became popularized here in the US. I wonder what event in the ‘90s could have coined a new racial term. Why, the most racialized event in the past 15 years: the OJ Simpson trial!

After the trial was over, Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro evidently decided that his client wasn’t innocent after all, and started hitting the talk show circuit to spread his newfound belief. There, Shapiro claimed that Johnny Cochrane, Simpson’s black defense attorney, had “played the race card, and dealt it from the bottom of the deck.”

Bringing us to the present, I find it interesting that the McCain camp would hearken back to the OJ trial to find techniques to criticize Obama. But what is more interesting is how the Race Card got flipped. While the idea of using racial division to one’s own political advantage hasn’t changed, it has gone from a term of white, racial bigotry to white, racial victimization.

Of course, this was the ‘90s, which saw the rise of Rush Limbaugh and the Angry, Oppressed White Male. With all the civil rights legislation, racism was over for women and minorities, and now the pendulum had swung the other way with affirmative action, racial quotas, and reverse discrimination. Everything was backwards (is that what reverse discrimination means?).

This Race Card had become so powerful that the racial tables had turned. Good, God-fearing, hardworking white Americans had become so paralyzed with guilt that minorities and liberal Feminazis had taken over the world. A good, white man couldn’t find a job. The 1990 Jesse Helms “white hands” ad during a Congressional campaign against black challenger Harvey Gantt sums up the sentiment perfectly: “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?”

I gotta tell ya, as a black man, I feel utterly cheated by this whole Race Card phenomenon. While I don’t feel particularly oppressed at the moment, I haven’t received my Race Card in the mail yet, so I’m not reaping the privileges either. I guess being a minority helped me get into college – though I fit well within my alma mater’s academic parameters. But I definitely know it didn’t help me get that dream job at Goldman Sachs: “Well, Mr. Campbell, you have absolutely no qualifications to be a financial analyst. However, we have to hire one more minority today. So, I guess you’re it!”

But I’m not alone in this. So are most African-Americans. There seems to be an entire socio-scientific industry built on chronicling the disparities between blacks and whites. (So much so that when Freakanomics reported that test score differences are more class-based than race-based—in other words, middle- and upper-class blacks score the same as their white counterparts and poor whites score just as badly as blacks—it was wholeheartedly ignored.) Blacks come out on the short end when it comes to infant mortality, life expectancy, HIV infection rates, diabetes, and a whole slew of physical ailments. While black and white drug use is the same, the chances for first-time black offenders of being incarcerated are 48 times greater than whites.

Folks with “white-sounding” names are 50% more likely to be called back for job interviews than those with “black-sounding” ones. (William Robert Campbell at your service!). And, my favorite, in 2003 the American Journal of Sociology found that white men with criminal records are slightly more likely to get a call back for an interview than are black men with a totally clean record.

Where are these people’s Race Cards? As I said, I’m still waiting for mine. I got big plans. As soon as I get it, I’m going to go buy that $1.4 million house in my old Cleveland Park neighborhood with no money down and 2% interest (I’m willing to work for what’s mine). Then, I’m going to Georgetown University Hospital and become a well-paid neurosurgeon. Sure, I have neither credentials nor training, but I’m black, right? White folks will feel sooooo guilty that they’ll let me crack open their skulls. And then I’m going to flash my Race Card and make my books, My Booty Novel and Sunshine Patriots, international best sellers. See, I can’t wait to get minez. I just wish Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would stop bogarting them all!

I’m guessing that’s not how the Race Card works. I couldn’t tell you. Nobody I know has ever gotten one. It’s a mystery to us. We’re starting to think it doesn’t exist—almost as though it’s a … a myth.

If the Race Card is indeed a myth (and I have my doubts), it would just be one in a long line of racial myths that have graced our shores since the Middle Passages. There was the “happy darky” who absolutely loved being a slave—just a-pickin’ and a-grinnin’ in the cotton field. The negro didn’t want freedom and was too child-like and feeble-minded to endure the rigors of slavery. Phrenology scientifically proved that the negro skull was too small to contain real intellect. The Bible definitively stated that black enslavement was the result of the curse on the sons of Ham. White people were just following the Word.

What these and so many other myths did was help excuse, defend, and justify white privilege. It had been proven unequivocally that blacks were inherently inferior. Whites were not oppressing them. They were doing blacks a favor. After all, it was the “White Man’s Burden” to colonize the world, subjugate its darker peoples, and extract its natural resources because, without them, the colored masses would be living in a world of darkness absent God’s Light.

In a way, the white man was the victim in all this. Sure, he was getting rich off the whole venture, but these people didn’t understand the stress and strain of this civilizing enterprise. In fact, those coolies and niggers were downright ungrateful. Slave revolts, malingering, colonial uprisings, independence movements … when would it all cease? And even when Europe gave in and gave those countries their independence, when America gave blacks the right to vote and all that civil rights legislation, they still kept coming at them, charging white people with “racism” all the time. They just kept playing the Race Card!

Look, I understand, nobody wants to admit that they somehow live a privileged existence. I, as an American, don’t like to think that the cheap shirt I just bought cost so little because some kid in Asia was locked up in a sweatshop being forced to make it for next to no wages. I work hard and try to do right by people. And so do most white people. Neither of us wants to hear that our little world might be built on the backs of others’ suffering. Besides, this is America, the Land of Opportunity, where, if you work hard, you can make it, because in America everybody gets a fair shake.

The abovementioned statistics, and so many more, fly in the face of that belief. And it’s hard to reconcile the two. Most refuse to even acknowledge them. And, inevitably, some become hostile to those stats and start getting angry at the people who produce them. They’re struggling, paying bills, and people are out there complaining about “white privilege” and “racism”. Are those people accusing me of being racist?

Well, I’m not racist? They’re racist! They’re the ones playing the Race Card. Not me. Hence, the effectiveness of the Race Card. It charges that those complainers are not just grandstanding whiners, but it also claims that they are using race as a weapon to further their own ends. They want more money for welfare (mistakenly believed to be mostly for African-Americans), they want more affirmative action, more racial quotas, they want to take away more jobs and more college slots from hard-working, deserving white people. It preys on white insecurity and blames the victim for their own victimization as well as conveniently turning whites into victims themselves (look at the White Hands ad—the white worker and employer were powerless in the face of racial quotas).

By charging the racial disparity commentator of racism, Race Card victims are attempting to silence her/him. It denies white privilege and seeks to shore up its defenses with that silence. We can easily dismiss those stats as racist as well and never be forced to address the inequalities in this supposed Land of Equality.

That’s why I find it curious that John McCain has taken this tack the past week. When he accuses Obama of using the Race Card “from the bottom of the deck,” what is he really up to?

Race is not exactly new to American politics. The idea of white victimization ain’t all that novel, either. In more recent times, we’ve had Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” Bush, Sr.’s Willie Horton, Reagan’s Welfare Queen. McCain himself has fallen victim when W. surrogates claimed that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter was actually his black love child back in 2000. Some claim it lost him South Carolina.

So, no, race and American politics have often been bedfellows. And, with Barack Obama’s historical candidacy, it can’t be avoided—no matter how hard we try. After all, nobody’s looking at him, saying, “Hey, who’s that half-white guy?” Because of that, there are going to be people who vote for Obama because he’s black, and there’ll be folks who will vote against him for the same reason. People are inspired by racial pride, and operatives are out there preying on racial and religious fear.

And the latter are definitely out there. There’s Fox News, which constantly refers to the Dem as “Barack Hussein Obama.” There’s Sean Hannity suggesting that electing Obama “would mean a racist and an anti-Semite would be President of the United States.” Rush Limbaugh claims that Obama has “disowned his white half” and that he’s the “Affirmative Action” candidate since he “probably didn’t get out of Harvard without affirmative action.” Ann Coulter has called him a racist and advises people to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in order to better understand Obama. There are also bloggers and emails circulating that accuse Obama of being a Muslim, black radical, closet al-Qaeda, etc., fanning the flames of fear and racism.

McCain knows this stuff is going on. He can probably guess that these attacks are not just coming from wack jobs and Fox News (redundant?)—that some of these people are probably attached to, associated with, maybe even funded by Republican sympathizers or backers. McCain himself has denounced some of these attacks.

Before you get all pissed, I am not accusing McCain of being a racist himself. Hell, I don’t know the man. I can’t look into his heart. Joe Lieberman claims that McCain “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.” While I refuse to call him a racist, his record doesn’t exactly jibe with Joe.

McCain has come clean about originally voting against the MLK holiday. What he forgets to mention is that he supported Arizona governor Evan Mecham’s decision in 1987 to rescind an executive order creating a state holiday for King. Nor has he said anything about siding with our man Jesse Helms in voting to prohibit federal financing for the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. Oh, and has anybody heard about why he reportedly voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1990 four times?

And can we forget: "I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live." But hey, he was a prisoner of war, captured and tortured by the people he made a living bombing. He later reversed his support of Mecham’s decision. He’s apologized for the MLK vote, protested the South Carolina Confederate flag, called the Religious Right “agents of intolerance,” and he’s got that black love child. So, no, I wouldn’t accuse McCain of being racist. I think his record, like most of ours, is just a bit ambivalent when it comes to race.

What I will accuse McCain of is what he’s saying about Obama, and that is that Obama is using the Race Card. By employing the Race Card accusation against Obama, he hopes to silence the man’s complaints or, if Obama does actually complain about the whispering campaign against him, to paint those grievances with a “racist” brush. “Oh, there you go again, injecting race into the campaign.” But race has been a part of this campaign since Clinton campaign staffers sent an e-mail that Obama attended a madrassa, and it hasn’t stopped. If McCain’s ploy is successful, it will silence Obama on said racial attacks and allow those racial attacks to continue unabated.

Meanwhile, McCain himself hopes to look as though he’s above the Race Issue (though his statements and voting record could suggest otherwise). And he can look like the victim in all this, suffering the slings and arrows of Obama’s racist attacks. In fact, this past weekend pundits reported that the McCain camp fears that anything they say will be misconstrued as racist by Obama supporters.

Pretty clever.

And downright disingenuous. When you claim that Obama’s inexperienced or is an empty suit, when you claim that his policies won’t work, nobody finds you to be racist at all. When you say he’d rather lose a war in order to win an election or that he wouldn’t visit wounded troops in Germany because there’d have been no cameras there (even though he’d visited wounded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that same week), we don’t find those at all racist—distasteful, but not racist.

But, in all honesty, what people find offensive or not isn’t really the point, is it? The McCain campaign is attempting to put out that they are the victims of racism and will continue to be as long as this campaign continues (meanwhile, providing cover fire for the Fox News pundits, Rush Limbaugh, and random bloggers—nothing they say will be accused of being racist now either). And, if Obama was being taken to task for the comments of Jeremiah Wright, why isn’t McCain suffering the same fate for all these comments being said about his opponent? I’m assuming that that will never happen. McCain is never going to have to give a contrite speech about race before the nation. No, in the race debate, McCain is going to be seen as the victim of racialized tactics. See, that’s the beauty of the Race Card—it turns victimizer into victim and vice versa. And it has been a very effective tool in getting people elected. Just ask Jesse Helms, who was behind in the polls until the White Hands ad. Or Bush, Sr. The Willie Horton ad did wonders for his campaign. Ask McCain himself. His “black love child” cost him South Carolina. Better yet, just ask Peter Griffiths. “Want a nigger neighbor, vote Labour.” Gotta love it.


Effaridi said...

Welcome Bill.
I was on vacation last week. I was happily unplugged from our campaign mess.
In the Bahamas with family, we were given a tour by a Bahamian guide. During a quiet aside while the fam was shopping, he and I talked. He shared with me that it never fails that American Blacks are completely overwhelmed by the fact that the Bahamas are a country with a significantly Black ruling body (Governor, Secretaries of, Judges, etc...). And seeing "Black" Bahamians on the money always elicits ohhs and ahhs.
We carry our racial baggage with us, as Americans, everywhere we go because we rarely get past it.
A good friend and former coworker, a Canadian Swede, would without fail bring up race in the effort to understand the context in which we taught (99% Black inner-city school, his son being the only non-black student). What part of our condition was racial oppression, what part of our condition was the acceptance of low standards and expectations? I could never answer the question clearly because of the constantly evolving situational context of the question. We're still working out those answers three years of friendship later.
As for the race card, let’s just say I received a good kitty. I find myself in good employ because of my not meeting the low expectations of my employers. I speak well. I work hard. I complain when warranted. I write relatively clearly. I got a manager’s position at a bank after working one month, because no one qualified was willing to work at a branch in a poor black community (conveniently, it was where I lived). Now in education, so few Black men are working that I find my intelligence, youth, and melanin-tinged maleness to be a hot commodity. But I hear the implications in all this: He's not like those other Negroes.
As for the campaign, Obama needs to ramp up his message of hope that inspired folks to take a chance on him during the primary. Since the nomination was clinched, he seems more like a traditional politician than the change agent folks clamored to see, hear, and vote. If that aspect of his campaign fades, then he will struggle, and likely lose, in the face of GOP and Media conniving.

(And with this Race Card being from a Whist reference, its a wonder we, the Natives of the Lounge of Blackness, don't play it more).

NT said...

You're right that the McCain camp is being pretty clever (and horribly cynical) about playing the media. Claiming to be victims when they're nothing of the sort is a tried and true weapon of the right wing. It's from the same cloth as the ridiculous "liberal bias" argument, which has lobotomized our political discourse to the point where all we ever get now is very sterile he-said, she-said articles because political reporters are generally too scared to actually weigh differing arguments and tell us which is more accurate. It's all very depressing, and predictable.

modik said...

Hey, love the title of the blog by the way.

Very informative and thought-provoking piece here.
Looking at "from the bottom of the deck" a little bit -- at least when connected to the race card issue -- gets to your point and one of the things that irks me about this whole "race card" concept.
The phrase could suggest that the card could have been used a long time ago, but only pulled out in some last ditch effort. It could also suggest that instead of waiting for all the other cards to be played, you go for the one that you know will the hand.
But here's the kicker: it must mean that the card was there the whole time, right? But McCain and others will make it sound like the whole issue came from out of the blue. Like you said, only Obama seems to notice folks whispering negative things about his racial background. People who try to act like racism doesn't exist get on my nerves, just as much as folks who think everything that's done to them is a reaction to their race.

If the campaigns, courts, lawmakers, schools, etc. want to go on thinking race ain't an issue -- until they want it to be -- then guess we have to let them. But I wonder if race was a factor for the guy who just got arrested for making threats against Obama in which he allegedly said if that n-word becomes president "i'll assasinate him myself." Guess he played his card from the very top!

Carl Davidson said...


It never ceases to amaze me that in the world of the Fox-Hannity crew, the only real racists in this this campaign are Obama and his Black supporters, while everyone else in the country are just just us good 'ole colorblind lovers of Dr. King.

Well, I know what most of these folks thought of Dr. King when he was alive, and it makes you want to puke.

I'm a family history buff. I got hooked on doing family trees, but learned some very interesting things besides ancestry.

One way you verify your ancestors is property deeds. I looked them up here in W PA, Beaver and Allegheny county. You know what they all say? 'Free White Males Only.' There were about a dozen Black slaves in Beaver county, and perhaps a hundred free Blacks, but this kept them from owning land.

Now my family were Scots-Irish and German farmers and workers, and none of them rich. But in the Great Depression, the fact that some Davidsons had farms, helped all of us scrape through it. But I still remember, as a little kid, the first Black people I saw. Three families on a dirt road near Five Points. They had shacks by the dump, and survived by picking from it. 'Why do they live there?' I innocently asked my Dad. Because they have no where else to go, was the answer. I never forgot it.

McCain's next 'race card' is going to be 'affirmative action.' But those old land deeds tell the truth that the country was founded on affirmative action for white folks that had an impact up until this very day. When people who have been kept down try to even things up a bit, level the playing field, and they get this 'race card' crap thrown at them, it makes my hillbilly blood boil.

Yes, indeed, time for a change. Vote Obama 2008.

RonStrelecki said...

Obama is stuck with Wright while McCain coasts on his whack-job preacher connection because of "out-group homogeneity". People within a group are capable of understanding that there is a diversity of opinion within the group that they belong to. External groups are "them" and if there's one thing that "them" share in common it's "they all think alike". This certainly applies to the Obama/Wright "connection".

I mean, if they really wanted to go at Obama on religion they could take a stab at his atheist mother. In fact, when you look at Obama's "membership" in that church... I would say Obama's an atheist who just joined that Church to get elected in Chicago.


One Race Card:
Instructions: "play".

I always loved that "play" was the verb for this. We're just "playing" the race card. It's fun!


The great advantage that McCain has been handed by Obama's race is that he can be not racist. Which is to say that he can not bring it up at all. This is what it means to be "not racist" when you're white. It means you never mention it. So, by not mentioning it... Basically, he can send people put there to foul the waters with all the racist claptrap imaginable, then, as each "scandal" occurs, he "condemns" it, but not until the damage is done. Talk about privilege!

And the coded racism is everywhere. It's absolutely constant. The entire theme of the Clinton campaign was, "Oh he talks a good talk, but when push comes to shove, will he be there for you?" They absolutely, unapologetically (yet very subtly) used racism... Obama: it's okay to flirt with him in college, BUT DON'T GET PREGNANT!

All McCain has to do is pick a suitably blonde VP candidate and he will pick up a lot of votes. We are going to see a HUGE disparity between exit polls and the actual vote in this election. A whole lot of people are going to be talking out of both sides of their mouths on the first Wednesday in November.

It's like a giant hammer sitting there, and you don't even have to pick it up! You have everyone else do it for you.


Great writing is bad "'blogging". You won't get many responses because there are simply too many good ideas to respond to. 'Blogging is a little different from writing. Keep writing! Ignore what I said. I'm an idiot!

bliss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bliss said...

There are none so blind as those who will not see... (The ones who claim racism no longer exists in this country.)

The "Race Card" will remain in the deck as long as the deck remains stacked.