We live in a country haunted by a past of slavery, segregation, racism, and violence. Though many systemic corrections have been attempted, a large percentage of African-Americans continue to fall behind their White counterparts in nearly every index of socio-economic well-being. The debate rages on as to why this situation exists and persists, and people on both sides of the color divide have become increasingly sensitive to perceptions and accusations of racial injustice. In his book, The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, Richard Thompson Ford explores the phenomenon called “the race card,” wherein individuals play on the public’s sensitivity by deliberately invoking racial paranoia, suspicion, or sympathy in order to secure some personal or professional windfall. Ford points out that the use of the rhetoric and legacy of racism and racial injustice in this way is not only dishonest, but has serious discursive and material consequences beyond any personal gain that can be achieved. Each use of the race card effectively drains the reservoir of public sympathy, which can create a problematic situation for true victims of racial injustice. Instead, he advocates for an approach he terms “coolheaded pragmatism.” In this essay, I want to explore the idea of the race card more deeply, as well as discuss Ford’s idea of “coolheaded pragmatism.” Though deeply moved by the spirit of Ford’s book, I believe he looks only at a modern variant of the race card. In the first part of my essay, I will explore an alternative take on the history of the race card. Second, I will discuss some key differences between the true “classic form” of the race card and what I call the “neoclassical” race card, showing the neoclassical race card as a tool that can be used to promote social justice when used responsibly. Finally, I will offer a short critique of Ford’s “coolheaded pragmatism” and discuss how this alternative to the race card, while admirable, is normatively problematic.
GW Paper Series
Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2009