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The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse

The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse

by Richard Thompson Ford

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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

What do hurricane Katrina victims, millionaire rappers buying vintage champagne, and Ivy League professors waiting for taxis have in common? All have claimed to be victims of racism. But these days almost no one openly defends bigoted motives, so either a lot of people are lying about their true beliefs, or a lot of people are jumping to unwarranted conclusions—or just playing the race card. Daring, entertaining, and incisive, The Race Card brings sophisticated legal analysis, eye-popping anecdotes, and plain old common sense to this heated topic.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312428266
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 03/03/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Richard Thompson Ford is the author of Racial Culture: A Critique and a regular contributor to Slate.

Read an Excerpt


In November 1987, a deputy sheriff was dispatched to an apartment building in Dutchess County, upstate New York. There a resident of the building led him to a large plastic garbage bag that contained a seemingly unconscious Tawana Brawley. Brawley’s body was smeared with feces, her clothes were torn, the crotch burned away from her jeans, and she was not wearing a bra or underwear. An ambulance was dispatched, and Brawley was taken to the hospital. When her clothes were removed, the markings were stark and unambiguous: the words “nigger,” “bitch,” and “KKK” were scrawled on Brawley’s torso in black charcoal.1

The sheriff’s office, sensing that they were in over their heads, called the FBI to report a likely civil rights violation. Doctors examined Brawley for injuries and evidence of rape. They found neither. Brawley could not—or refused to—speak to hospital staff and detectives about what had happened. Eventually, communicating by nodding and shaking her head, she indicated that she had been raped by several men. Then came the bombshell. When asked if she could identify the attackers, the silent Brawley scrawled two words on a piece of paper: “white cop.”

When Brawley was released from the hospital, her family thought a warm bed and an interview with a New York City television station might help her to rest and recover. Against the advice of the hospital social worker, her mother and aunt publicized the horrifying story. They did so, they said, out of fear that the incident would be covered up by a racist law enforcement establishment.

The last thing they needed to worry about was too little publicity. The family enlisted (or was conscripted by) lawyers Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason and the Reverend Al Sharpton. Thereafter, “Brawley’s story” (she never told her own story publicly, which gave her representatives plenty of, let’s say, interpretive license) was the featured topic of discussion on innumerable news and current events programs, including the archetype of talk TV, The Phil Donahue Show, and its down-market competitor, The Morton Downey Jr. Show. Sharpton—not Brawley—named names, accusing a local police officer, who later committed suicide, and assistant district attorney Steven Pagones, who later successfully sued Sharpton for defamation. Sharpton—not Brawley—spun a conspiracy theory worthy of its own X File, implicating the Irish Republican Army, the Cosa Nostra, New York governor Mario Cuomo, and a mysterious man with a missing finger.2 (Could Dr. Richard Kimble’s one-armed man have been out of the loop?)

Something was badly awry. Even without Sharpton’s embellishments, Brawley’s story—to the extent that she told one—didn’t jibe. Witnesses saw her climb into the garbage bag herself after looking around furtively. All of the materials necessary to stage the assault were found in her old apartment. She was seen at a party shortly before she was discovered by police. When examined at the hospital, she showed no signs of exposure despite subfreezing temperatures, suggesting that she hadn’t been outside for long. Brawley never had the chance to explain these discrepancies, and she never had to explain them: on the advice of her lawyers, she refused to cooperate with police and prosecutors, so she never gave a detailed account of events. She was spirited away to undisclosed locations while her handlers gave incendiary interviews to the press and spun race-baiting conspiracy theories. Sharpton, in a heartwarming display of sensitivity, said that asking Brawley to meet with New York’s Jewish attorney general would be like asking a Holocaust survivor “to sit down with Mr. Hitler.”3

A grand jury found no evidence of wrongdoing and concluded that the whole affair was probably a hoax. To this day we cannot know whether Brawley was assaulted by someone—named or unnamed, known to her or unknown—whether she was cajoled or pressured into playing a role in an elaborately orchestrated hoax, or whether she just made the whole thing up. Owing in large part to the exploitation of the case by her lawyers and handlers, any truth is so intermeshed with a tissue of lies that there’s no separating the two. As a result, “Brawley’s story” is still available for charlatans and demagogues to cite as evidence of an elaborate white racist conspiracy. For such people and those who believe them, the Tawana Brawley incident is a reason to resist law enforcement, to distrust the criminal justice system, and to secede from mainstream society into black separatist cults such as Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. (Farrakhan has vowed vengeance on Brawley’s attackers: “You raped my daughter, and I will kill you and dismember your body and feed it to the fowl of the air,” he frothed.4) But for most people, whatever else it was, the Tawana Brawley debacle was a prime example of the damage done—to lives, to reputations, to careers, and most of all to the truth—by playing the race card.

Almost all Americans agree that racism is wrong. Many believe that it remains a serious problem that affects many people on a regular basis. But a lot of people also worry that the charge of racism can be abused. We can all think of examples: Tawana Brawley’s claimed assault seemed to have been a staged hoax. Michael Jackson—a musician who enjoyed the most lucrative career in the history of recorded music—teamed up with Brawley’s former handler, Al Sharpton, to accuse his recording label, Sony Music, of a “racist conspiracy” to undermine his popularity after sales of his disappointing latest album are, well, disappointing. The multimillionaire—who, through untold plastic surgeries, has achieved the Aryan phenotype of Snow White—declared fearlessly, “When you fight for me, you’re fighting for all black people, dead and alive.” (That rumbling you hear is the sound of thousands of former slaves, sharecroppers, and victims of Jim Crow turning in their graves.) Prince, a musician whose contract was not quite as good as Michael Jackson’s but still extraordinarily generous, complained that he was a “slave” to his record label (years later Prince made a deal with Jackson’s old label, Sony, apparently unafraid of the racist conspiracy). Clarence Thomas, when charges of sex harassment surfaced during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court of the United States, compared his critics to a lynch mob. And of course there’s O. J. Simpson. We all know what happened with O. J. Simpson (don’t we?).

The Race Card will examine the prevalence of dubious and questionable accusations of racism and other types of bias. I will argue that the social and legal meaning of “racism” is in a state of crisis: the term now has no single clear and agreed-upon meaning. As a result, it is available to describe an increasingly wide range of disparate policies, attitudes, decisions, and social phenomena. This leads to disagreement and confusion. Self-serving individuals, rabble-rousers, and political hacks use accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of “bias” tactically, in order to advance their own ends. And people of goodwill may make sincere claims that strike others as obviously wrongheaded.

In a sense, the Tawana Brawley incident was a classic example of playing the race card: Brawley and/or her handlers used a claim of racial bias in order to gain something they didn’t deserve—notoriety, attention, money, public support for their controversial racial politics. But in another sense the incident was atypical. Playing the race card typically involves jumping to a conclusion not compelled by the facts; Michael Jackson’s album sales were disappointing—that’s a fact—but it’s far from obvious that they were disappointing because Jackson was the victim of racism. By contrast, it appears that Brawley or her handlers actually fabricated the injuries, as well as disingenuously claiming that racism was to blame for them. The Brawley incident didn’t involve jumping to a conclusion that the facts didn’t support; it involved making up facts that would support the desired conclusion.

Still, this unusual case demonstrates something about playing the race card more generally: false or exaggerated claims of bias piggyback on real instances of victimization. They “work” because there are enough similar verified cases for the lies and exaggerations to seem plausible. Brawley’s story was plausible to many people because they knew of similar incidents that actually happened. There are racist police, and they sometimes abuse black people. When asked many years later whether he would apologize for his role in the incident, Reverend Sharpton defended his conduct: “Apologize for what? For believing a young lady?”5 People who believed Brawley did so because they gave her, rather than the police, the benefit of the doubt. They began with the presumption that black people often suffer from racism and police often lie. People who began with the opposite presumption—that blacks rarely suffer from racism and police are usually truthful—never believed her. In the Brawley case, the latter presumption yielded the correct conclusion. But that doesn’t make it a superior presumption in general. It would have yielded the wrong conclusion in many other cases, such as when New York police did indeed sexually abuse a black man—Abner Louima—and lied about it in an unsuccessful cover-up attempt.

The cases of Brawley and Louima involved objective facts that people could observe and verify. But many claims of racism don’t involve such hard facts; they involve prejudice or bias—a state of mind we can’t observe directly. Consider the following high-stakes struggle, where many people think the winner played the race card.

. . .

The year 1991 marked the end of an era in American civil rights. Thurgood Marshall—the first black Supreme Court justice, the lead attorney for the NAACP in the historic racial desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education—announced his intention to retire from the bench. Immediately the speculation and maneuvering concerning Marshall’s replacement began. It was widely expected that another African American would be—indeed, would have to be—appointed. Liberals and civil rights groups began a predictable campaign directed at the Republican president—George H. W. Bush—who would nominate Marshall’s successor. It was crucial, they insisted, that the nation’s highest court include a person of color. The Bush administration would demonstrate the racial insensitivity—indeed bigotry—that its enemies had long suspected if it appointed a white person to fill this vacancy. Partisan politics and ideological litmus tests surely should be put aside in this instance. Marshall’s vacancy should be filled by a person who could understand and express the unique experience of racial minorities in this country.

If it had its druthers, the Bush administration would certainly appoint a conservative. And the most prominent conservative judges were white. But Republicans couldn’t afford to ignore the race issue. Part of the GOP’s long-term strategy involved improving its dismal level of support among minorities. But the party couldn’t shake its reputation as racially insensitive or downright racist. Its long-lived “Southern strategy” relied on race-baiting to deliver white votes to GOP candidates. Bush had been elected, in part, on the strength of a notorious ad campaign that many felt exploited racial bigotry. The ad pilloried Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis for supporting a program that allowed prison inmates to take “furloughs” from incarceration. The ad informed the public that a convicted murderer, Willie Horton, beat a man and raped his fiancée after failing to return from furlough. The ad prominently featured Horton’s menacing black face, complete with shaggy Black Panther Afro and beard. Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, crowed, “By the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name.” Atwater did not exaggerate. By the end of the campaign, one might have thought Horton was Dukakis’s running mate. The ad may have helped Bush win the election, but it didn’t help Bush or the Republicans improve their standing with African Americans.

Bush faced a dilemma. If he nominated a white conservative to the Supreme Court, it would reinforce the perception that he and the Republicans were insensitive to racial injustice, hostile to civil rights, even closet racists. But the black judges with the stature and experience for the position were civil rights liberals.

Beltway conservatives must have bristled at this bind. The liberals were using a blatant racial quota—something conservatives vehemently opposed on principle—to push the president to a more liberal nominee. Many of the “New Right” became conservatives in reaction to this kind of identity politics. They had seen their neighborhood schools forcibly integrated through racial busing imposed by liberal judges. They felt that their cherished family alma maters had succumbled to the cheap thrills of radical chic and caved in to the pressures of black nationalist mau-mauing and feminist hectoring. “Disadvantaged minorities” displaced their sons in the entering classes of Ivy League universities; militant feminists demanded integration, disrupting the comfortable esprit de corps of campus men’s clubs. The traditional liberal arts curriculum had been watered down with overtly political ethnic and feminist authors, a concession to a misguided and trendy pluralism. The grande dame of classical education—Western Civilization—had been raped by radicals and begat such bastardizations as “World Civilizations” and “Cultures, Ideas, and Values.” In the newly hyper-liberal colleges, they had been forced to sit through what they felt were self-righteous screeds about “white male oppression,” and they were browbeaten by pious professors and students alike, each competing to be more sensitive and tolerant than thou.

And were the people who got into college through race and gender quotas grateful to be there? Hardly. Instead, they harangued and harassed, complained and cajoled for ethnic studies, feminist studies, special theme houses, “sensitivity” days, mandatory tolerance workshops. They held marches, sit-ins, and rallies for every conceivable left-wing cause.

And it wasn’t enough for them to have their special self-segregated programs (the rationale of integration was conveniently forgotten once they had bullied their way in). They also wanted to piss on everyone else’s fun. The only silver lining in all this cloudy “social progress” was that the introduction of large numbers of women made it easier to get lucky. But the feminists were quick to put a stop to that: they pressed for sex harassment codes, turned dorm counselors into antisex police, and proposed fraternization rules so strict that you had to get a signed and notarized consent form before you could so much as ask a coed out on a date. They bullied the universities—successfully in many cases—to kill off the Greek system just because a party or two got a little bit out of hand.

When graduation finally came, these same malcontents followed the conservatives right into government and private industry, making the same demands there. So everyone had to sit through race and gender “sensitivity training” at work. There were new rules everywhere to make sure no one’s delicate sensibilities were ever “offended.” And now they were doing it again, playing the race card to force the president of the United States to choose a left-wing affirmative action nominee for the Supreme Court.

But conservatives had an ace up their sleeves. A black conservative with just enough experience to be a plausible candidate but not so much as to have left a long paper trail of controversial published opinions. One can imagine the number of champagne corks that popped the night someone—maybe a young, up-and-coming member of the Federalist Society—made his career in conservative politics with the suggestion “Clarence Thomas.” Imagine the strategy meeting of some unknown conservative think tank. The jowly old guard grumbling; the fresh-faced Young Turks scowling. Marshall’s getting up in years; what to do if he retires while our team is in the White House? How do we deal with the race issue? Then someone says it: “Clarence Thomas.” It was racial politics jujitsu: use the enemy’s strength against him. We have to pick a black nominee? Fine. We’ll give you a black nominee so conservative he makes Edmund Burke look like Che Guevara. So what that he’s just barely been appointed to the federal bench? Are the quota-crazy affirmative action liberals going to say that a black candidate is unqualified?

Clarence Thomas hit the liberals right between the eyes. Liberals had pressed so forcefully, so righteously, so sincerely on the importance of racial diversity on the Court. They had carefully honed all of the moves in support of affirmative action. They had perfected the subtle and not so subtle insinuation that anyone who suggested that an affirmative action candidate wasn’t qualified was a closet racist. Now all of these finely tuned arguments would be redeployed in support of the most conservative jurist since Hammurabi. The liberals would have to swallow hard and accept Thomas or confront their own best arguments and the charge of hypocrisy to boot.

Liberals were suddenly on the run. They had defeated other ultraconservative candidates, such as Ronald Reagan’s nominee Robert Bork, focusing on their published opinions, public statements, and scholarship to demonstrate that the nominees’ views on hot-button issues such as abortion and civil rights were outside the political mainstream. They tried to do the same with Thomas. Prominent black law professors testified, expressing concern about Thomas’s hostility to school desegregation and affirmative action, but Thomas had no scholarly career and hence no scholarship. He had made few public statements and, since he had served as a judge for only two years, had published few controversial opinions. When asked about his views on abortion, Thomas stonewalled, insisting that he had not considered one of the few legal issues about which almost everyone—lawyer, Beltway warrior, and civilian alike—had an opinion. The Harvard Law School professor Christopher Edley pointed out that “when applied to fundamental matters, this [answer] is almost disqualifying. A well-qualified nominee should at least be able to suggest . . . the framework for his or her analysis. How else can you discern someone’s constitutional vision, which is the key question before you?”6 But Edley’s plea for a tough look at Thomas’s qualifications fell on deaf ears. Because his race subtly but effectively insulated him from criticism about his qualifications, Thomas’s inexperience was proving to be an advantage. He didn’t need to impress the Senate; he just had to avoid giving them ammunition against him. Thomas was able to deflect hard questions by demurring.

Conservatives were buying confetti and chilling bottles of Krug when Anita Hill turned up in the District. Hill was a prim young black woman who had worked with Thomas on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She claimed that Thomas had sexually harassed her, following a classic pattern: he asked her out, she declined, he started hassling her with off-color jokes and references to porn. Hill was a believable accuser, in large part because it was hard to imagine that this proper woman could have invented a story that included a porn star named Long Dong Silver and references to pubic hair on a can of Diet Coke. Someone had to have exposed her to these ideas. Not that Thomas was an obvious suspect, this tightly wound man, impeccably sexless in Beltway-standard gray flannel and blue serge. But look closely enough and you could almost see it: the leer, the gleam in the eyes, the licking of the lips. Could he be Willie Horton’s kith and kin after all—a sexual predator dressed up for Court?

The Senate confirmation hearings began as a duller than average legal theory symposium involving issues such as “fidelity to the Constitution” and the meaning of “penumbral rights.” After Hill’s accusations they morphed into a Jerry Springer episode that had put on airs. The nation witnessed a parade of disgruntled former coworkers, jilted ex-lovers, and other “character witnesses” testifying to the integrity or duplicity of Thomas and Hill. The Clarence ’n Anita Show offered the viewing public that most comfortable scene of American pop theater, wherein the vain and cocky black man gets taken down a notch or two by the headstrong black woman. Hill played a demure Sapphire Stevens to Thomas’s somber Amos Jones, with EEOC colleague and Thomas supporter John Doggett making a cameo as Kingfish Stevens.

The daytime drama came to a head when a beleaguered Thomas described the hearings as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Although race had thus far served as a silent inoculation against critique, here it was deployed openly as a full-strength antibiotic. Thomas sought to link his struggle to sit on the highest Court in the United States to the struggles of African Americans to avoid physical mutilation, torture, and death. He implicitly evoked the experience of blacks such as Emmett Till, a young black man from Chicago who was tortured and killed by whites after teasing a white woman in Mississippi. He compared milquetoast Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to an angry mob armed with firearms and strong rope.

No one dared openly scoff, but many found the analogy harder to swallow than a diet cola of dubious purity. The irony of the moment was striking, even in this, a political drama that Oscar Wilde could have written: Thomas—a corrosive skeptic of accusations of racism during his tenure at the EEOC—cried racism the moment his nomination was in real jeopardy. When the chips were down and the stakes were high, this staunch defender of color blindness shamelessly played the race card.

Irony notwithstanding, it’s possible that race did play a role in validating Hill’s accusations. Clarence Thomas was about to enjoy the highest honor the legal profession can bestow—an appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States—when Democrats introduced the nation to Anita Hill. At the very moment when Thomas should have been basking in the admiration of his peers, he was forced to address charges of a most embarrassing and sordid nature. Nothing could be less consistent with the esteem in which members of the federal judiciary were typically held. Nothing could have more effectively undermined the judge’s persona of cool rationality, objectivity, and cerebral detachment than the image of the sex fiend so enslaved to bodily passions that he abused his authority and preyed on his employees. Thomas must have been furious. Attack me for my record, for my reasoning, for my ideology if you must. But this? This is (literally) hitting below the belt.

Worse yet, these charges had an ugly racial overtone, intended or not: the black man as sexual predator. That’s how many of Thomas’s colleagues and much of the nation would receive them. The people who advanced the charges and pressed the issue had to have known this. These charges were probably more believable to many people and certainly much more damaging psychologically to Thomas because of his race. In this light, the claim that the hearings were a “high-tech lynching” isn’t quite so far-fetched. Even those disinclined to support Thomas on his merits might worry that the stereotype of the oversexed black man colored, so to speak, the proceedings, making the charges seem more plausible. Veteran antiracists, well acquainted with theories of illicit and unconscious racism, might doubt that it was mere coincidence that the first Supreme Court nominee to face such resistance—based not on his record or his competence, but on his sexual predilections—was a black man.

“I believe Anita Hill” became a slogan of left liberals during the confirmation hearings. But like most slogans, it stood for more and less than its literal denotation. It stood for a feminist conviction that sex harassment demanded attention and condemnation. It stood for opposition to Thomas and his ideological views generally. It stood for solidarity with a brave woman who faced the full brunt of the right-wing public opinion machine. It stood for all of these things, almost to the exclusion of a sober and objective evaluation of her story and its plausibility. Mightn’t an embattled Thomas reasonably have suspected that part of the reason so many believed her and not him, part of the reason her story, tarnished by the passage of time, gained the luster of plausibility and for many the gleam of Truth, was that her account confirmed one of the most pernicious of racial stereotypes?

Excerpted from The Race Card by Richard Thompson Ford. Copyright © 2008 by Richard Thompson Ford. Published in January 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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