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“The race card”: Dealing from the bottom of the deck

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Rick Horowitz
July 27, 2010

Say the magic words, and end the conversation.


Say the magic words, and uncomfortable facts and figures disappear. Responsibility? Gone. Complicity? Vanquished, with a phrase.


And the phrase, of course, is this: “Playing the race card.”


Ready to conjugate? Here we go:


“He’s playing the race card.”


“She’s playing the race card.”


“They’re playing the race card.”


“You’re playing the race card.”


Though never, needless to say, “I’m playing the race card.” Never “We’re playing the race card.” Even magic words have their limits.
“Playing the race card” is never something the speaker does himself, or herself. It’s always something someone else does, to the speaker’s obvious disgust, by pointing out yet another example of inequality or injustice, of different treatment—of lesser treatment—based in whole or in part on the color of someone’s skin.

But only say the magic words and none of that matters—no need to explain, to defend, to justify. To offer contrary, persuasive facts. Say the magic words and sit back, satisfied.


You showed ’em.


You stopped ’em right in their tracks, you and your all-purpose stain remover. You and your bumper sticker dressed up as thought. You’ve not only ended the conversation—you’ve won the conversation. Or so you tell yourself.

Maybe you even believe it.


Maybe you really can’t see the difference—in scope, in scale, in staying power—between year after year of state-sanctioned (when it wasn’t state-mandated) discrimination based on race, of violence (or the constant threat of it) based on race, of a seat at a restaurant, a room for the night, a bank loan or a ballot denied to thousands, to millions of people, year after year solely because of the color of their skin…
Maybe you really can’t see the difference between any of that, between all of that, and two black guys standing outside one Philadelphia polling place one day two years ago with uniforms and a nightstick and an attitude. Two black guys, and a handful more, who call themselves the “New Black Panther Party” because it sounds so much more formidable than calling themselves “A Handful of Black Guys Desperate for Attention and Happy to Scare the Bejeepers Out of White Folks.”
Maybe you really can’t see the difference.

Or maybe it’s just easier to pretend you don’t. White racism, black racism—it’s all the same thing. If we’re all victims, then no one’s a victim. Move along—there’s nothing to see here. Move along.


And anyone who suggests otherwise, who points out the differences in scope or scale or staying power, is—all together now: “Playing the race card.”


Are there professional victims? People who are only too happy to turn a highly polished sense of racial grievance into a lucrative living? No doubt about it. Are there hucksters and hustlers able to transform injustice into sympathy, and sympathy into a free pass for all manner of misdeeds? No doubt about it. You see them in the headlines. Occasionally—not often enough—you see them in handcuffs.

They deserve all the scorn they can handle, and then some.


But what’s that got to do with the rest of the conversation? Except, of course, as a convenient way to duck the rest of the conversation.

It’s so much simpler that way.


Just say the magic words.


Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at rickhoro@execpc.com.

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