The Rhetoric of Racism

Book cover
The Race Cardby By Richard Thompson FordFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 p. $26

As I write, New York City awaits reaction to this morning’s non-jury acquittal of three police detectives charged in the death of a young black man killed in a hail of gunfire outside a Queens strip club. The young man was hours away from getting married and, despite police suspicions, proved unarmed. Minutes before the verdict, Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt obliged to profess both confidence that there would be post-verdict calm and readiness for any disturbances.

Maybe the mayor believed that much of the public naturally situates every “bad shooting” case within a grim, shameful, grief-ridden history of oppression. Or maybe Mayor Mike simply knew to hedge against the risk of some opportunists exploiting racial alienation. Richard Thompson Ford, author of The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, could appreciate either perspective.


The Race Card aims to recast how Americans talk about race and racism and to make racial discourse less scandal-centered and less accusatory. Perhaps Oprah Winfrey’s failure to gain entry into a Parisian Hermès store at closing time is not a great bellwether of racial tolerance. Racism certainly played into New Orleans’s post-Katrina horrors; but the immobility of poor black citizens and their housing in the most flood-prone areas was largely the work of racists long gone (as is the gross overrepresentation of young black males in our criminal courts, prisons and morgues).

This latter phenomenon—“racism without racists”—accounts, by Ford’s lights, for a “large and growing share of racial injustice in our society.” Such injustice, to be sure, requires redress. Yet we need to see “social problems that demand social solutions—not individual misdeeds that demand excoriation and individual reparation.”

Fixing blame rather than righting wrongs, under such circumstances, amounts to an erroneous or overstated allegation of racism. It is the first of four ways Ford describes in which the race card is played, “wolf” is cried and the bonds of credibility become frayed.

The second way Americans play the race card is through “racism by analogy.” Those who charge discrimination on account of obesity or unconventional appearance, for instance, misappropriate the civil rights paradigm. “Fat is not the new black”; “[l]egally induced challenges in the standards of beauty...might just give different people the short end of the ugly stick.” Race analogists trivialize the suffering of African-Americans and even jeopardize the current consensus against racial discrimination.

Fluidity and confusion as to definitions of discrimination and goals of affirmative action are the other sources of trouble. The “racist” label carries the same pungent stigma whether attached to the most hateful, overt discrimination or stamped on an otherwise good-faith policy with a disparate racial impact. Affirmative action, when deemed an instrument of “diversity” rather than a tool of integration and assimilation, makes easier the facile charge of “reverse discrimination,” the right’s favorite race card.

There is much to recommend in The Race Card. Ford writes with breadth, energy and well-aimed wryness. A law professor at Stanford, Ford puts to rest forever one wag’s notion that a lawyer’s prose will “resemble a cross between a nineteenth-century sermon and a treatise on higher mathematics.” Even Ford’s discussion of case law that delineates different forms of discrimination sweeps the reader along.

Ford does not carry water for any particular political faction or ideological camp. He critiques in every direction. He does not flinch when such luminaries as Alice Walker or Cornel West come into his line of fire.

Even in his most tangential moments, Ford delivers. If you harbor vague misgivings toward People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (which compares cattle ranching to slavery), read Ford’s brief discussion, and they will crystallize into healthy antipathies.

The Race Card, however, is not without flaws. Ford’s discussion of O. J. Simpson’s murder trial falters. The case was not “as strong a circumstantial case as one gets,” not when key evidence was recovered by a detective who had admittedly framed suspects and employed the N-word as if he collected bonus miles with every invocation.

More broadly, programs to undo the legacies of racists past will frequently bear uncanny resemblance to efforts at plain old distributive justice. For the past quarter-century, our country has increasingly indulged a market fetish and worshiped at the altar of The Self-Made Man. Ford needs to reckon with these lamentable trends.

Finally, Ford correctly insists that we need to put our racial discourse on a broader, more rational footing. Discrete episodes of putative racism rarely offer teaching moments. Instead they serve as shadow-plays interpreted in accordance with individual predilections, prejudices and politics. When in February the Academy Award montage of Oscar hosts omitted four-time host Whoopi Goldberg, it may or may not have had to do with race. Just how likely are we to divine the answer by exploring institutional patterns and individual psyches?

Ford, however, fails to acknowledge just how much anecdote, scandal, “test cases” and purportedly emblematic incidents drive our national discourse in all areas—health care, tort reform, gun control, criminal justice, you name it. This is owing in part to the innate human preference for stories over abstractions, narrative over argument and pictures over concepts. It also owes something to a culture in which citizen-consumers insist that everything be made entertaining and easy to digest. One wonders how readily Americans will knuckle under for some hard, honest, humble thinking on our oldest and most intractable problem.

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