Beyond Bigotry

by Hans Allhoff (June 2008)

The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse
By Richard Thompson Ford
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008


In the book Eternally Vigilant: Free Speech in the Modern Era, the legal scholar Frederick Schauer has an essay titled “First Amendment Opportunism.”  The point is straightforward and good: 

“With surprising frequency, people and organizations with a wide array of political goals find that society has not given them the doctrinally or rhetorically effective argumentative tools they need to advance their goals.  The absence of these legally or culturally accepted arguments…disturbs them, but it also leads them…to look for plausibly effective but ill-fitting tools.  And in looking for these imperfect but usable tools, they often find that the leading candidate is the First Amendment.”

Is nude dancing really a matter of free speech,  Schauer asks, or do we just say that because a right to sexual (or economic) liberty isn’t so easy to find in the Constitution’s text?  Most likely the latter.  And not only is the First Amendment useful here, but as Schauer says, it’s an “argumentative show-stopper.”

So is the accusation of racism, and its opportunistic use (and misuse) is largely the subject of Richard Ford’s book The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse.  (Disclosure: Ford was a teacher of mine at Stanford Law School, though I’ve not discussed The Race Card with him.)  That title has the potential to mislead.  Like the nude dancer whose sexual and commercial freedom don’t square with community values, the person who plays the race card isn’t without some gripe.  Indeed, The Race Card (in most places) isn’t a plea to victims of discrimination to take their lumps and shut up; it’s a reasoned request that they call the discrimination against them what it is, which often isn’t either racism or its moral equivalent. 

In some contexts, which Ford refers to as “racism without racists,” playing the race card “undermines a thoughtful analysis of the real underlying social injustices that prompted outrage in the first place.”  Thus, the hard time any black man has catching a cab in New York City may have less to do with racist cab drivers than with “the larger racial injustice…that blacks are disproportionately stuck in high-crime neighborhoods where reasonable people are afraid to park their cars, much less pick up strangers.”   

In other contexts (“racism by analogy”), the background social injustices aren’t racial at all—and Ford lets on that he’s not even sure they’re all injustices—but self-proclaimed victims are happy to analogize.  Here the problem isn’t missing what’s important but rather yoking too much to the civil rights agenda.  The overweight Jazzercise instructor whose very frame suggests that Jazzercise doesn’t work, fatal to her employability, may be unfortunate, but Ford isn’t sympathetic.  “Asking Jazzercise to hire fat instructors is not like asking a lunch counter to hire blacks; it’s more like asking a cosmetics company to hire models with severe acne.” 

The tougher case is discrimination that is allegedly based on phenotypical or cultural attributes of race—the black woman who sues American Airlines, for example, asserting her right to wear cornrows despite a grooming code that prohibits them.  A richer discussion is probably to be found in Ford’s previous book, Racial Culture: A Critique, but Ford is quick to the punch here.  “If, as the legal multiculturalists claim, racism is a failure to tolerate nonmainstream norms and practices, then the loser of almost any social or political conflict can claim to be the victim of racism-like bias.”  That’s a problem because, by Ford’s lights, “[t]he growing number of social groups making claims to civil rights protection threatens the political and practical viability of civil rights for those who need them most.”  But again, he’s not saying the Jazzercise instructor and American Airlines employee should just zip it.  Rather, their claims “require a cool-headed cost-benefit analysis that the heated rhetoric of bias does not facilitate.”

That’s really the theme of The Race Card, and it reveals a fair-mindedness that Ford is to be commended for.  Charges of racism get us nowhere these post-racist days, a term Ford calls “too clever by half, but still evocative and compelling.”  First, they inevitably “provoke defensiveness and resentment rather than thoughtful reaction.”  Second, like Schauer’s nude dancer, it’s rarely so simple; we’re faced today with genuine disagreements over what racism is and what social justice requires.  No matter the issue—Ford devotes his third chapter to employment discrimination, racial profiling, and affirmative action—there are compelling interests on both sides, and it takes a much richer, much more honest discussion of our underlying social aims to adjudicate them.  In the employment context, for example, equality is “a complicated question of trade-offs and predictions; it requires us to weigh the costs of changing or abandoning policies that make beady-eyed economic sense against the harm that such policies do to the causes of social justice and of integration—without a perfect measure of either.”  And Ford goes on.  The conflicts over bilingual education, multiculturalism, and a meaningful social integration aren’t a matter of bigots being bigoted.  “We need a way of talking about race that captures its still often brutal salience and its nuances and complexities,” he says.  Query, however, whether Ford’s pragmatism and calm will satisfy those whose vision of social justice is more nearsighted. 

If The Race Card does have a defect, it’s that Ford sometimes struggles to work his particular insights into his core argument.  For example, his claim that opposition to gay marriage has little to do with homophobia (and thus, bigotry) and a lot to do with a preference for distinctive gender roles certainly shows us why likening that opposition to racism is inappropriate, but the hook to race relations isn’t there.  I’m also confused as to why Oprah’s alleged Crash moment at Hermes shop in Paris makes it into Ford’s “Racism Without Racists” chapter.  Here, there’s no underlying social injustice to speak of, unless it’s the conspicuous consumption and commodity fetishism—terms Ford rightfully attributes to the sociologist Thorstein Veblen and Marxism, respectively—that the Hermes brand incites in the first place.  And why, I wonder, does Ford have nothing to say of stupid white men like Don Imus, Michael Richards, and Dog the Bounty Hunter?  Men, that is, who say unquestionably racist things but whose own racism is far less apparent.  Does he believe they’re just garden variety racists of whom the less that’s said the better?  In the spirit of The Race Card, maybe we should take a scalpel to them and not, as we have, a sledgehammer.  (Or maybe The Race Card had already gone to press.) 

And finally, Ford should, but doesn’t, connect his critique to the plain fact that public debate generally has gone downhill in recent years; across a range of issues, we’re just more ideological—and correspondingly less serious—than we should be.  The Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon a decade ago wrote a book called Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, whose title speaks for itself.  Playing the race card is like rights talk, in a way—absolutist, self-centered, and substantially emotive—and The Race Card may as well be subtitled: “The Impoverishment of Racial Discourse.”

Ford is, nonetheless, that rare academic who writes plainly, convincingly, and entertainingly—and in so doing writes well.  The Race Card may strike some as pop scholarship of the Freakonomics variety, but so much the better.  Ford’s is a hand that should make most race pundits out there fold their own.


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