On Not Playing the Race-Card Card

Wild Bill (WB) wrote, “We should notice that when someone claims ‘the race card’ has been played, he or she identifies a single meld or toss and ignores the many other cards on or under the table.

Indeed, we cannot validly isolate a ‘hand’ or a ‘trick’ of racial cards. The game may slacken or quicken, and various players leave the table as others are dealt in, but betting and bluffing about races and racism have endured for centuries.”

By focusing on the metaphor of the card and card-playing, WB has deconstructed the phrase, “the race card,” although, like many others, he may be allergic to the word “deconstruction,” so please don’t indict WB for my misdemeanor of referring to deconstruction.

In any event, I’d like to look at the phrase from at least one other angle, one that emphasizes a view of why speakers and writers might choose to deploy it.

One purpose of asserting that someone has “played the race-card” may be to play the “played the race-card” card. That sounds a bit like Gertrude Stein’s writing, I must admit, so let me attempt to clarify it.

The purpose (and, if the purpose is achieved, the effect) of saying or writing “the race card” may be to stop further discussion by trivializing an assertion.

For example, if we believe that Jimmy Carter was merely playing a card, then we needn’t think any further about what he said. It was just a card!

(Similarly, if we merely claim that Johnny Cochran was playing the race-card in the O.J. Simpson trial, we may overlook broader issues of Los Angeles’s history of law enforcement and race, of the jury-system in the U.S., and of the role money plays in “justice” in the U.S.)

If we refuse to entertain (so to speak) the card-metaphor, we may be less likely to trivialize discussions of race and racism. We might view former President Carter as a legitimate expert of sorts on Southern culture and on elements of racism, even though his views may be imperfect, his experience limited.

Although we might still believe he is over-stating or over-simplifying the case, we might also use the occasion of his authority (in the rhetorical sense)—and his plain speech—as an opportunity to consider what aspects of the abundant rhetoric about President Obama may be based in lingering racist ideas and what aspects may not.

But as WB suggested, if we begin and end with “the race card,” we cannot take into account all the other cards and games played; if we dispense with the metaphor altogether, our chances of exploring the issue productively may improve.


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