Review of The
Race Card, by Richard Thompson Ford
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/7/08
In reading Richard Thompson Ford’s The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, I was put in mind of one of William Shakespeare’s most quoted bon mots. To paraphrase: Kill all the social psychologists! This came to mind precisely because most books penned on race relations in this country are written by social psychologists, social scientists, sociologists, or folk of that ilk, and inevitably the too-long tomes are weighted down by psychobabble and spurious reasoning designed to show off the author as the lone figure of enlightenment in a morass of bigotry, indolence, and ignorance. Against that backdrop, Ford’s book is a light read (only comparatively), and a detailed and convincing one, because he is not a purveyor of spurious social sciences, but rather a Stanford University law professor, whose prior published book was Racial Culture: A Critique- a work I’ve not read, but have read was similar in tone and dialectic to this book. Therefore, as a lawyer, he does not pad his examples nor arguments with moralizing and faux insights; instead he cuts to the meat, snaps the bone, and gorges on the slim marrow of substance such a topic proffers. And in that marrow, Ford’s ideas and analyses provoke thought, whether you feel his ideas are more of the same old liberal gobbledygook, or reprehensible Uncle Tomming designed to give cover for racist whites; and both claims are sure to be hurled, for Ford’s lawyerly training makes him hew to an impassive and evenhanded cost/benefit analysis, whereas most writers- especially with social psychology bona fides, would rather rake muck with easy emotionalism.
The book starts off with the first modern example of the race card being played- the infamous late 1980s Tawana Brawley Hoax, which brought to the public fore the sleazy Reverend Al Sharpton. From there he catalogs two decades worth of instances where claims of racism by blacks (celebrities or common folk) were of a dubious nature. These include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s claim of a ‘high tech lynching’ when he was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill- a black colleague of questionable emotional stability, whose reputation suffered as much, or more than his, as he was eventually confirmed. Naturally, the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson mega-events in 1990s Los Angeles get scrutiny. Then there are lesser and less dubious incidents, such as actor Danny Glover’s lawsuit claiming he was discriminated against by New York City cabbies, and Oprah Winfrey’s ridiculous ‘outrage’ over not being allowed in after hours at the Parisian department store Hermčs; which Ford rightfully portrays as more an abject lesson over the sense of entitlement that all celebrities feel, rather than any old black American female being dissed by the snooty French.
Yet, Ford does not just make his case by using examples, for he dissects these incidents, as well as more cogent, if unknown, legal cases, with a rapier that is not easily defined by any political label, merely a consistency of rationale. At times, some readers may feel that Ford is too detailed, but given the hairsplitting nature of so many claims about race- from racial supremacist theories to the rights and wrongs of racebaiting, this is hardly a grand flaw in the book, if one at all. When Ford does get speculative, it is never too over the edge. As example, a good portion of the book is devoted to debunking racism by analogy, as Ford lambastes people who support animal rights, gay marriage, fat and looks discrimination, and much of multiculturata. Likely the section that will engender the most criticism is that which deals with sexual harassment- in one case, Ford goes to great lengths dissecting a case of a warden of a female prison who basically made the female officers his sexual playthings in order to advance. A woman who filed a sexual harassment suit lost because Ford explains the difference between his actually explicitly asking her for sexual favors, and merely creating an environment where her path to success (and those of male officers whom the warden had no sexual interest in) was allegedly hindered.
Much of this example, and others, will cause argument, both over their relevance and Ford’s stances on them, and I certainly do not agree with all of Ford’s posits; but he never dwells on a single case too long to bore one, and he mixes and matches his examples and points enough to keep a reader wondering just what more will Ford reveal of judicial and legal nuances, such as the difference between formal discrimination, discriminatory intent, and mere discriminatory effects- something Ford terms ‘racism without racists.’ This condition he relates as a result of not direct racism, but from ‘isolation, poverty, and lack of socialization as much as from intentional discrimination or racism.’
While zealots on both sides of the race issue- be they supremacists, or more likely, these days, folk claiming ‘reverse racism,’ racial opportunists, opponents of Affirmative Action, multiculturalists, pseudo-rights organizations, or those selfish individuals playing the race card for murky reasons, Ford’s solutions and common sense approaches are sure to evoke a backlash ‘with us or against us’ cry, and a label as the aforementioned liberal apologist or Uncle Tom. Yet, these very labels, and the urges to toss them with ease, on both sides of the political spectrum, are at the heart of what motivates the idea and usage of the race card to obscure more important issues. Especially guilty of this are those people and groups who accuse others of a ‘racism by analogy’- i.e.- the assorted other dubious –isms out there, like looksism or weightism. People in those groups try to leach off of genuine rights protections afforded by the assorted Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, which prevent discrimination based upon race, color, sex, ethnicity, or religion, things which can cause problems of a social order. Ford deftly flays such haughtiness by noting manifest things as there never having been riots of ugly nor fat people, despite the latter group’s spurious claim that ‘fat is the new black;’ because one cannot change one’s race, whereas weight maintenance is merely a personal challenge, albeit often a difficult one. He also zeroes in on the problem of fat people trying to pay only one fare on airplanes, even if they physically take up two seats, and one obese, black woman’s lawsuit which first had her claim weight discrimination, then switch to race discrimination when the first option failed legal scrutiny. Such an example lays bare an old adage that I have wielded myself, that ‘taking offense is always a conscious choice’ on the part of an individual, and usually is done so to try to leverage guilt for recompense (financial or emotional) of one sort or another.
Aside from the immanent silliness of such trivial claims and lawsuits (and the author really tattoos PETA- the animal rights group for employing convenient old time racism in service to their cause), Ford argues that they give cover to real acts of discrimination with the old ‘boy who cried wolf’ claim made by the real bigots, who try to cover up their sins by pointing to the mounting cases of these forms of the race card which distract the public from the real issues that need addressing. Aside from the concision of his arguments, Ford’s writing style is concise, occasionally witty, but, most of all, intelligent, as he uses his knowledge of the law not to preen but to elucidate. As example, on the aforementioned:
Taking every racial issue personally can blind us to the many racial injustices for which no one is to blame. If every racial injustice entitles its victims to lambaste the person nearest to hand, then when there is no racist to blame, it follows that there must be no injustice. As racial politics increasingly focuses on trivial slights, innocent slips of the tongue, and even well-intentioned if controversial decisions, the most severe injustices- such as the isolation of a largely black underclass in hopeless ghettos or even more hopeless prisons- receive comparatively little attention because we can’t find a bigot to paste to the dartboard.
In a bit more political risky analysis, however, Ford posits that proponents of gay marriage are too quick to label opponents as bigots. Instead, he argues (with a multiplicity of reasons) that legalizing domestic partnerships and civil unions would yield essentially the same results, without stepping on the cultural toes of those with a religious tinge. Of course, stepping on toes is exactly the reaction many political groups desire to urge society from its indolent ways. Equally complex a subject matter, however, that Ford excels at putting into both a cultural and legal context, is the rise of the Political Correctness- or Multiculturalism, movement of the last two decades. Ford laments how many of its proponents have so severely twisted their notions of rights that they have tried to enact legal constructs to protect ‘cultural purity’ by attempting to garner legal protections for segregated housing on university campuses, de facto arguing that integration, assimilation, social engineering, and all the fights against redlining and legal discrimination in housing were, in effect, worthless, and that ‘separate but equal’ was perversely correct. Naturally, such notions have only allowed many of the purveyors of power to justify their own racist beliefs by pointing to the fact that the so-called ‘victims’ of bigotry actually endorse the same ideas that the enablers and profiteers of bigotry do.
Yet, Ford is not only taking shots at nebulous nobodies, as he takes on those black celebrities who play the race card. Aside from the vapidly manifest examples of an Al Sharpton or Oprah Winfrey, he takes dead aim at one of the leading black intellectuals in the country, Princeton University religion professor Cornel West (who often as not portrays himself as a heinous cross between two of the nation’s most noted recent charlatans- a leaner version of the aforementioned Al Sharpton, and a tanner version of mythological bamboozler Joseph Campbell), who also wrote a book dealing with race, 1993’s Race Matters. What is so impressive about Ford’s gripe against West is that Ford simply allows West’s own words reveal his own racebaiting by virtue of the unconscious ways the noted racial provocateur deploys modifiers. In West’s own words he describes his frustrations over not being picked up by a Manhattan taxicab. Naturally, he ascribes this solely to racism, even though Ford parses West’s own words, where he writes he left his own ‘rather elegant’ auto in a ‘safe’ parking lot, then waited at a nearby corner on Park Avenue, trying to hail a cab that would take him to Harlem. West claims that, after nine taxi drivebys, he got angry. Yet, Ford opines, if West himself decided it was unsafe to drive his own car to the crime-ridden area, and made sure enough it was squirreled away in a parking lot that was ‘safe,’ how can he then charge other people- the cabbies, who also do not want to venture into such a neighborhood, with racism, when he, a black man, is manifestly guilty of the same fears they are- motivated by crime, not race?
And, aside from the more nebulous claims of racism on the individual level- be it celebrity or anonymous plaintiff, Ford also delves into the ‘Big Issues,’ like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which let a social disaster follow a natural one, and which displayed unadorned racism of the old sort. He writes:
No one talked about race at first. After senses and sensibilities recovered, it was hard not to notice that almost all of the stranded victims of Katrina were black. Black people huddled in the Convention Center and the Superdome after their houses and apartments were destroyed. Black people on buses to Houston, Atlanta, and Albuquerque, where they would wait for the recovery or, more likely, stay and start afresh. Black people on rooftops and in the upper floors of apartments, stubbornly refusing to leave their homes behind or desperately waiting for help in escaping the aftermath of a storm they had gambled wouldn't be so bad. Black people ‘stealing’ loaves of bread, fresh water, baby formula. Black people happening upon plasma TVs and platinum watches in abandoned stores. Black people as far as the eye could see.
Then came the photo captions. There couldn’t have been much time even to fact-check those captions, much less vet them for political correctness. But there they were, two pictures, two captions, on the same day no less: August 30, 2005, the day after the levees broke. Both front and center on Yahoo News.
One shows a black man wading through the water carrying a sack: ‘A young man walks through chest-deep floodwater after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday.’ The other one shows a white couple wading through the water; the woman is carrying a sack: ‘Two residents wade through chestdeep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store....’
The black guy is a looter, a gangbanger, a stone-cold Crip out for an easy score. Isn’t that a boom box in his hand? Oh, wait, it’s a pack of diapers. The white couple: Jeannie and Jean Valjean, driven by adversity to take a loaf of bread, no doubt to feed their small children who are, unfortunately, just outside the frame. I bet they even left their names and telephone numbers and a note apologizing.
It’s all over the Internet later that day. Post-Katrina racism. Yahoo News was just a dramatic symbol for a much larger issue. People started asking questions that were barely veiled accusations. Why was the federal response so slow and inadequate? Why did President Bush stay in Texas on vacation two days into the catastrophe? If those victims had been white Floridians rather than black Louisianans, would Bush have cut his vacation short? People thought they knew the answer, because a year earlier a hurricane struck white communities in south Florida. The response was rapid and, by one account ‘generous to the point of profligacy.’ Bush delivered relief checks personally. Local officials praised the generosity and efficiency of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Monday; the levees failed on Tuesday. By Saturday, on national television, rapper Kanye West called the president of the United States a racist….’
Yet, Ford does not concur, and ends the digression on Katrina like this:
Katrina is a prime example of a racial injury without racists. Like most American cities, New Orleans is racially segregated. Its black residents are disproportionately poor, and they live in the least desirable, most dangerous areas of the city, so they suffered the most in the wake of Katrina. Their homes were disproportionately located in the areas that flooded. They were disproportionately without cars to move themselves and their belongings to higher ground, and therefore they were disproportionately among those unable to leave town before the storm hit. New Orleans’s black residents suffered as a result of racism- the racism that established black segregation and a crippling cycle of poverty. They also suffered because of the shortsightedness, neglect, and government incompetence that made the aftermath of Katrina worse than it had to be. It’s natural to want to hold the available blameworthy parties responsible for all of these evils. But most of the racists responsible for the distinctly racial cast of the Katrina disaster are dead and gone.
And it is just such a rapier, and its wielding, that separates Ford from both lesser thinkers and writers, whether or not one believes President Bush is a racist- passive or not, nor whether there are other incidents in the President’s life that might support such a claim, Ford’s point is that Katrina, alone, may have just been an Occam’s Razor example of the President’s overall incompetence, not any deeper bigotry.
Yet, there are some stumbles, such as this take, in which Ford not only mangles the meaning of the term post-racist as used in modern society- especially on blogs and call-in cable tv and radio talk shows, but succumbs to his own version of cringe-worthy pc gamesmanship (note the none too subtle uses of the feminized she for the gender neutral he):
A 2006 article in the arts and culture magazine Black Book announced the rise of a ‘post-racist’ culture. The term is too clever by half, but still evocative and compelling. Like ‘postmodern’ or ‘postcolonial,’ the prefix in post-racist doesn’t suggest the demise of what it modifies- in this case racism. Instead, ‘post’ suggests a sort of supernova late stage of racism in which its contradictions and excesses both cancel out and amplify its original functions. The post-racist has absorbed the values of the civil rights movement- she is perfectly comfortable with black authority figures, black classmates, black neighbors. He thinks it’s unremarkable that the secretary of state is a black woman. She says that she doesn’t really think of her black friends as ‘black,’ and she means it. She also freely indulges in the black stereotypes our culture has on offer: hip-hop’s image of the black thug, the black pimp, the black drug dealer, the black crack whore, the black hustler. The post-racist is free to be explicitly and crudely bigoted because he does so with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
The post-racist parodies racism, but she does’t exactly repudiate it. Instead, she revels in its excesses with almost a kind of nostalgia, just as the film Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery archly mocks the 1960s spy movies and swinging London but also yearns for them with an almost heartbreaking sincerity.
One of the intriguing characteristics of post-racism is that it is practiced by all races on an almost egalitarian basis.
Fortunately, for every misstep like this there are a few dozen outstanding jabs like the piece quoted just prior to this one. Furthermore, by book’s end, Ford returns to the very thing that I opened this review with- avoiding the pitfalls of how to end the book with a long list of unattainable prescriptions for society, save for suggesting that a government jobs program, similar to the Works Progress Administration, during the Great Depression, might be a start to alleviating the problem of black ghettoization. He even ends the book in an open-ended fashion which squarely tosses the issues he raises back in the laps of his readers, rather than the usual sociological proscriptions and neologisms that such books usually pass off as a form of wisdom from the mount.
Overall, The Race Card is one of the best written (stylistically), focused, and incisive books I’ve ever read on the subject of race in America. It is a work that avoids excessive delving into the supposed motives of people, and instead focuses on their actions, as well as explicating multiple ways of confronting an ‘incident,’ on racial, political, personal, and emotional levels. Perhaps only the long series of interview-based books dealing with race and class by Studs Terkel are as good, albeit they are so different in appeal and approach to this book that any real comparison is inapt. Richard Thompson Ford shows, in his tight and controlled prose, that the best way to approach a subject- especially one dealing with an inflammatory social or political point, is to confront it directly, examine it with the impassive scalpel of a medical examiner’s intellect, and just matter of factly report on the discoveries, allowing any further analyses to be done by others. Compared to the plethora of well-meaning but babbling sociological tracts and screeds I’ve read, The Race Card is an utter gem, and should be read eagerly and intensively by folks of all political hues across the spectrum. Now, for your own benefit, get to it!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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