The recent presidential primaries gave us the first viable African-American candidate and the first viable female candidate. It would seem we’ve finally grown into our national philosophy of freedom, justice, and equality for all – or have we? Throughout this political season, there have been accusations of racism, sexism, and, in the case of the white male candidate, ageism. Are we really a nation of bigots? Or is playing the race, gender, or age card just one more political strategy?
In The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, author Richard Thompson Ford tries to answer those question and more. “Playing the race card is an effective tactic,” he says, “because accusations of racism are plausible, and they’re plausible because there are in fact a lot of instances of racism.” The same is certainly true of sexism, ageism, and a plethora of other -isms that inevitably result in one or more groups of people suffering discrimination. But are accusations of discrimination always true or merely ploys, a means to an end? And when racism does exist, is there always a racist to blame?
Ford addresses the latter question immediately in a chapter entitled ‘Racism Without Racists.’ He points to a number of current events that may validate the theory, including the still-unresolved aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Failure of the government’s emergency services programs left tens of thousands of people homeless, hungry, and impoverished. The majority of these victims are black, as is the majority population in the affected area. When Ford wonders why the federal response was slow and dismally inadequate, why President Bush continued his vacation for two days after the hurricane struck, he must also ask, “If those victims had been white Floridians rather than black Louisianans, would the response have been different?” Is George Bush a racist who deliberately left victims to fend for themselves? Or was the appalling lack of aid to those victims the result of systemic incompetence?
Ford’s explanation is that black residents of New Orleans 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. “Black residents suffered as a result of racism – the racism that established black segregation and a crippling cycle of poverty … [even though] the racists responsible for the distinctly racial cast of the Katrina disaster are dead and gone.”
Ford explores a number of such cases in an effort to determine when racism is truly at the core of discrimination and when it is merely one possible aspect to consider. Did a New York cab driver refuse to pick up Danny Glover because he was black, or because the driver was nearing the end of his shift and unwilling to pick up another fare? Was Oprah Winfrey denied access to a posh boutique because she is a black woman or because the store employee was stricken by retail snobbery?
The answers aren’t often as clear as we’d like them to be, and Ford goes sometimes goes overboard in an effort to sort out the answers. He frequently gets distracted by the many factors that must be considered, and sometimes he wanders so far away from the point he appears to have lost sight of his original query. Still, he always returns to the path, usually repeating his premise as if to re-center himself. This rambling pace can be annoying but it also allows ample opportunity for the read to consider a host of possibilities, and to examine the issue from different perspectives.
As The Race Card makes clear, accusations of racism where none exists are an insult to everyone who has suffered from and fought to end racism. It threatens the value of civil rights laws and “breeds and exacerbates distrust between the races, making genuine claims of racism less credible.”
Readers looking for absolute answers will be disappointed by Ford’s wide-open willingness to consider the definition of ‘racism’ from many angles. Others will be surprised by his determination of what is not discrimination: bans on smoking and requiring fat people to purchase two seats on buses and airplanes, for instance. It isn’t necessary to agree with the author’s position on any of these in order to gain a better understanding of what racism is, what it is, and why we something can’t tell which hand is playing the card. The Race Card is a thorough and eye-opening discussion of the subtleties of discrimination, and well worth a thoughtful read by anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of how race, gender, and history affect perceptions.