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Posted by on Jul 27, 2009 in Society | 1 comment

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

I posted this here on May 21, 2008, during the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The original title of the post was Racism and sexism: it’s time to change the paradigm. I changed the title this time because recent events have changed my emphasis and give it renewed relevance. Ford’s message is one I personally take very much to heart.

Richard Thompson Ford, professor of law at Stanford University and author of The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, spoke last month [April 14, 2008] at Google. In his talk and in his book, Ford argues that we should think of racism not as a crime, like murder, where we have to find bad people and fix them, but rather as a social problem that we can come together to work on and fix, “kind of like air pollution.”

He disputes the notion that Americans don’t like to talk about race. He says we talk about race obsessively, just not very productively. “Every few weeks there’s a race scandal, but we don’t talk about the real problems and we don’t talk about real solutions.” Instead we talk about phony scandals generated by people paid to be offensive (stand-up comics, cable news pundits and radio jocks). And the problem is this distorts our understanding of race and distracts us from the real issues we could be addressing.

Ford sees a good news/bad news story about race relations in a world of “racism without racists.” The analogies between racism and sexism aren’t perfect but I think they’re there and they’re worth exploring. From his talk:

The good news is that attitudes are better than they’ve been in American history. I think it’s fair to say that they’re quite a bit better than they were 20 years ago… and they’re certainly better than they were in the 1960s during the time of the civil rights movement. Not only is racism taboo and people are unlikely to express racist attitudes openly but… actual attitudes are improved. Fewer people are racists and racism is on the wane. So that’s the good news.

The bad news is that many racial inequities are as bad as they were during the time of the civil rights movement. For instance… many inner city neighborhoods are as segregated as they were during the Jim Crow era, poverty in poor minority neighborhoods is in many cases worse, joblessness is in many cases worse… incarceration rates particularly for men of color are much, much worse than during the era of Jim Crow.

So this juxtaposition has led to it to be difficult for us to know what to think and what to do about problems of race relations. Some people looking at the problem of real inequities that continue to trouble our society conclude that if racial injustices are as bad as in the Jim Crow era than racism must be just as bad too and it’s all just undercover, it’s all on the down low. And that leads people to assume that when there are conflicts, when there are problems, there’s a racist to be blamed for it.

And that’s one type of conflict that has given rise to this phrase, “playing the race card.”

Far too long for a blog post (he’s a law professor after all) at 56 minutes it is well worth watching:

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My suggestion is that as Democrats grapple with racism and sexism in this campaign, Ford’s discussion of racism can inform both. Ford is clear that there are still racists. We can agree, too, that there are still sexists.

Ford’s argument is that ubiquitous accusations of discrimination frequently distract us from the real issues and keep us from making real progress. That argument certainly seems worthy of some serious consideration right now!

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