Playing the Race Card

August 2, 2008, 2:48 pm

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.

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