Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Race Card

No title

Race is back on the agenda. It's been a while since I've heard anyone bleating about the post-racial society. That's a good thing, because there's no better way to shut down discussion of something unpleasant than to get "everyone"—that is, a majority big enough to make it conventional wisdom—to believe that it's no longer a problem.

Unfortunately, race talk itself isn't much fun. It's charged, and often slides into fighting that only deepens divides rather than helps bridge them. Usually this happens when a discussion about race gets derailed into a discussion of 'the race card.'

'The race card' is shorthand for accusing someone of trying to win a debate by painting his opponent as a racist. This does happen from time to time, and it's very ugly when it does. For example, J-Street just accused Richard Silverstein of Tikun Olam of being a racist, because he wrote a blog post criticizing Jesse Jackson Jr. for going on an AIPAC junket to Israel and then writing a heavily slanted, anti-Palestinian op-ed in Jerusalem Post.

I think it's fair to assume that whoever posted the accusation from J-Street's Twitter account is not black.That would be typical. In my experience, the race card is most commonly played by whites against other whites. Blacks (Arabs, Roma etc.) tend to be pretty careful about accusing whites of racism, simply because the social price for doing so is big. To my recollection, I have been accused of racism by a black person exactly once, whereas I have been accused of racism by whites many times. Specifically, anti-Semitism, due to my position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

That social penalty comes from the 'playing the race card' card.

That's a card that I've seen played much more commonly than the actual race card. It's mostly played by whites against blacks or other minorities, rarely by blacks against blacks (etc.), much more rarely by whites against whites.

The 'playing the race card' card is a really effective way to derail a discussion. Whatever the topic was, it becomes about whoever raised it. That person is no longer someone pointing to a social, cultural, or political problem; she becomes someone with a chip on her shoulder, cynically exploiting the charged issue of race to win points in a discussion. Suddenly nothing she says needs to be taken seriously anymore, since it's now just petty personal spite, or envy for those smarter, wiser, and more fortunate than she. You know, people who don't care about race. Who, usually, happen to be white.

This is much nastier than the race card. First, because it's more common; so common that you might not even notice unless you're paying attention to it. It's one of the cornerstones of the chilling climate that makes discussions about race so difficult. And second, because it's, by nature, one-directional: a cudgel that can only wielded by the privileged against the marginalized.

Both the race card and the 'playing the race card' card are forms of the ad-hominem fallacy; attacks on the person rather than the argument. I would very much like to see the last of both of them. Of the two, the 'playing the race card' card is clearly the bigger problem. It's a lousy way to counter the race card in any case, even when it really does get played, and it's a big part of why these discussions we so desperately need to have are so fraught.

It would be nice if we could stick to the matter at hand rather than attacking the messengers. Wouldn't it?

Further reading


  1. Has this happened to you just now for you to post this ?

  2. Nope. Watched it being played left and right, though.

  3. Excellent post, Petteri. You know who it made me think of, but PTRCC is indeed an all too popular widespread, preemptive, frequently paranoid argument used to discredit, much like the "class warfare" card pulled out whenever anyone speaks of income disparity and the super-rich possibly having some responsibilities to society beyond making a profit.