Monday, July 27, 2009

Race is not a card

Scott Cannon's article about "reverse discrimination" has many points I could respond to, but I'm going to focus on a pretty basic one.

America, it seems, isn’t over race after all.

Rather, now the race card is being dealt in every direction.

Race is not a card. And conceptualizing it as a card makes it difficult if not impossible to have a constructive discussion about race. It's not even clear what people mean when they say "playing the race card." Sometimes they mean using race like a "get out of jail free" card. Other times its more like the penalty card in soccer. But it always stands for a disruption of some sort. And that's why it's harmful to discussions about race. It makes slightly more sense than saying that someone who just fell down is playing the gravity card.

Anthropologists and biologists alike agree that race is a social construct. Which is to say, it's not real. Except that it is very real. A long time ago, people decided to categorize "the Other" by the color of skin and we still do it. Most Americans seem to desire a "post-racial" society, but have no idea what that looks like if they think we are anywhere near it. Race shouldn't matter, but it does. And it's not something that goes away if we ignore it, despite all the good intentioned white people who think otherwise.

Someone "playing the race card" is someone disrupting that desire to pretend that race doesn't matter. And our current public discourse treats discussions about race as distractions or derailments from the "real" issue. If we can't acknowledge that race does matter - that it is deeply embedded in our institutions and our culture - then we will not be able to move forward towards the post-racial society that people claim to want. I don't think humanity is capable of having a "post-racial" society. I also don't think I'll ever be perfect, but that doesn't stop me from trying to be better. It's taken conscious effort to strip racism from our laws. It's going to take conscious effort to strip it from our culture.

On the bright side, it should be considerably easier to get white folks to recognize white privilege and racist cultural programming than to get americans to challenge the notion that we're entitled to enjoy such a disproportionate share of the world's resources. I'm crazy liberal and I can't even begin to honestly get my head around the latter even though I can see how from the outside people might think we have some explaining to do that goes beyond the primal "well, we've got it and we've got the power to keep it."


  1. this is an intimidating place to leave comments, but the least I can do is return the favor. I understand the race card as something having some monetary value:i.e. 550k for being called mammie, or in a more peaceful situation if out of two otherwise equally qualified candidates the minority gets the promotion,it's the price of the raise,etc. In the police/professor controversy if he sues the city and wins, that would be the price of his race card because white cop/white professor wouldn't really become and issue worthy of presidential comment. so at this time the race card is not something imaginary, it's something material. you can argue with the choice of the words. BTW if you use your gravity card at the right place and time you will also get paid.

  2. You make the race card sound like a commodity or a security. If that were so, Goldman Sachs would be making money off the race card derivatives market. And that it wouldn't have occurred to me to look at it your way goes to my point that its ambiguity makes it a poor way to frame a discussion.

    I could see the way you've envisioned it having some utility if it were expanded to a "privilege" card. Points are credited or debited by race, gender, the wealth of your family of origin. You're handed a card the moment you are born that's either in the black or in the red. Certain things are within your control to add to or subtract from your balance. Certain things that are out of your control can be used to add to or subtract from your balance. Developing this analogy further is going to take me too far off on a tangent.

    And as much as I'm delighted at the idea of "playing the gravity card" as a euphemism for "making a slip and fall claim," I'm afraid it's too misleading as gravity is far more generous than insurance companies or the common law.

  3. Speaking about Goldman, they(or someone trying to defend them) didn't hesitate to pull antisemitic card as was documented on Matt Taibbi's blog. You do these things when you have nothing else to say,can't argue facts,etc. When all defenses fail you can go with "so you hate Jews" or "you are a racist", that will usually shut up less prepared opponent.

  4. Glad to see you here in the blogosphere. Although, it was a bit of a trouble to leave a comment - seems you need google, wordpress or some other login to leave messages.

    You should consider allowing open comments. I know, it's like the hallways changing classes at high school but may be worth it for the variety of informed (and not so informed) comment.

    Cookingham, Junior

  5. cookinghamjr,

    Thanks for the tip. I didn't realize the default comment settings were that restrictive. It should be set now for anonymous commenting with no spam test. If I end up with a lot of spam, I'll re-enable that function, but I'd prefer to make it as easy as possible to comment.


    You have a gift for landmines. My point has been to not treat cries of discrimination as automatically disruptive. Of course they can be used in that manner. But that doesn't mean that all such cries are the equivalent of creating a distraction while others run away.

  6. FYI, I've had luck implementing Askimet for spam control on blogs - it solved the problem for me - it works behind the scenes and is easy to install. It's free for blogs. Also, captcha (entering letters) on top of Askimet may work even better if spam becomes a problem and Askimet cannot stop it.


  7. How does one paste in this thing? I was going to copy your statement about the relative ease of recognizing white privilege v. American exceptionalism; it may be accurate, but only in the sense that it might be easier to fly to the moon on one's own wings, than to fly to Mars by the same method. In both cases, those most benefited are those most committed to denying such a thing exists.

    Huh. Your comment box seems to exclude Firefox spellchecker, along with paste and html; not good for me. Oh wait, after my request could not be processed, spell check erupted.

  8. Les,

    I'm not sure what's going on with the paste issue. Thank you for mentioning it. I'll look into it.

    As for my comment about white privilege v. american exceptionalism, that was my attempt at optimism. We all do what we need to do to get through the day. :)