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August 1, 2008, 12:00 PM ET

Race Cards and the Race for the White House

McCain’s camp went on the racial offensive this week, accusing Barack Obama of playing “the race card” in recent speeches and characterizing some of Obama’s statements as “divisive, negative, shameful, and wrong.”

The remarks in question pivot on Obama’s claim that Republicans might attempt to engage in race-based and xenophobic fearmongering to win the election against him — that they might point out his foreign-sounding name and subtly remind voters how much he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on dollar bills” (a clear nod to his racial difference).

I’ve already commented on this kind of accusation before, when Dennis Miller went off on Obama for a similar statement back on June 20th.

Miller and McCain want to argue that Obama is calling McCain and the Republicans a bunch of racists and that unless Obama has explicit proof about some cabal of Republican strategists prodding people with explicit invocations of Obama’s racial identity, he is disingenuously injecting race into the election for political gain.

I can see why they would make that case, but race was already a part of the election. It always is, even when a black candidate isn’t running for office. So, invoking race explicitly isn’t about introducing a foreign substance into the mix. It just recalibrates the nature of that inclusion.

The election didn’t go from race-free to race-full simply because of Obama’s recent rhetoric. Race was always there, hovering, even in silence. That isn’t to say that we have to make a fetish out of it and reduce every other social phenomenon to its hidden mandates. But it does demand that we stop labeling any invocation of race as an evil and extrinsic injection into some otherwise race-neutral domain.

Moreover, we have to remember that racism is not only about blatant, Archie Bunker-style self-evidence anymore. Indeed, as a case in point, I have read many thoughtful people (including fellow Brainstorm Blogger Laurie Fendrich) imply that McCain’s “celebrity” ad (above) is little more than a subliminal attempt to indirectly invoke the horror of racial miscegenation without saying a word about Obama’s race at all, at least not explicitly. The juxtaposition alone, they claim, does all the necessary racial work.

Detractors would call such a reading absurd — or even paranoid. Is it? Maybe. But given the power of political correctness and the plausible deniabilities inherent in contemporary cultural politics (especially vis-a-vis questions of race/racism), a certain healthy form of race-based skepticism might actually be in order. Of course, where does “healthy” begin and end in such a scenario? I don’t know. But we can’t be so naive as to think that the specter of racist thinking doesn’t take material form unless some white person (preferably hooded) says the n-word in the crowded hotel lobby of an NAACP convention somewhere.

Did Obama play the race card by invoking the possibility of race being a factor in the way his opponents strategize against him? Probably. They’d be stupid if they didn’t take race into account as they prepared to do battle with an African-American candidate.

Did McCain play the race card in his newest campaign ad? Maybe. I didn’t see it when I first watched the clip, but it does seem like an odd decision to have Paris Hilton and Britney Spears stand-in for all of pop-cultural celebrity.

The key is to recognize that the proverbial “race card” can be used in many different ways — and that there isn’t a single deck of cards in all of contemporary American political life that doesn’t have the race card sprinkled throughout it (along with many other trumps, including “the race card” card used to counter “the race card” itself).

To think that somehow we can ever easily and definitively NOT play the race card is one of the worst forms of race carding there is. Call it reverse race carding. It is the kind of racial spin that tries to pass itself off as spin-free. And in contemporary media, culture, and politics, race-free zones, like “no spin zones,” are as fanciful a thought as mythological unicorns and sea monsters washed up on sandy New York shores.

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