Inspired by my friend Erika and her resolution to be a living example regarding the issues she cares about, I decided to launch a personal crusade to get people to stop using the term “the race card.”
What follows is an exchange that I feel is both insightful and instructive. In short, this is how to have an honest, direct conversation with someone with whom you disagree. If more people did this, they might discover the same thing that I discovered — that we agree about more things than I thought.
Here was my first email:
I read your column, and if I’m understanding your thesis correctly, I understand — and even agree.
The power of the social construct we know as race has been not only polarizing, but unifying, and while Senator Obama has experienced both intense support and intense backlash because of his ethnicity. The fact that such a relative political neophyte such as Obama could take down stalwarts such as Edwards and Clinton is impressive, no doubt.
But I take issue with your loaded language, particularly your use of the phrase “the race card.”
This phrase has nefarious origins (the O.J. Simpson trial) and it has almost always served to advance the interests of those who wish to disdain any attempt by Blacks or other non-Whites to address instances of racial bias and/or prejudice in whatever forum it might exist.
The idea that as a Black man, my racial identity can be reduced to a “card” that I can play at my convenience is both laughably ludicrous and morally repugnant.
If I could truly use this card (or keep it safely tucked inside my wallet) at my own discretion and prevent my ethnicity from becoming a problematic obstacle during inopportune situations like during job interviews or applications for bank loans… believe me — I would do so.
Unfortunately, that is not the way the world works.
But your use of the phrase “the race card” insinuates otherwise, and I strenuously object to your continuing to use it.
Please do yourself and your readers a service by abolishing this term from your arsenal of go-to phrases. It will elevate your writing beyond the stale and predictable, and honor the complexity and nuance of racial relations in America today.
Thanks for your consideration.
Thank you very much for writing and for your courtesy. Let me address your criticism with respect to the issue of loaded language vis-à-vis the phrase “race card.”
I cannot speak for others’ uses of the term, let alone its supposed origins. My use of the phrase – all three, actually; you did not see fit to take issue with “gender card” or “class card” – is to mock what I perceive as ad hominem argument that seeks to elevate or insulate or, conversely, to negate or silence an individual on the basis not of his ideas, but circumstantial matters such as his genetics, his birth, etc.
This inference you have made with respect to the phrase being used to “disdain any attempt by Blacks or other non-Whites to address instances of racial bias and/or prejudice in whatever forum it might exist,” if you wish to suggest that it applies to my column (your phrasing is equivocal), you would be quite mistaken, and I would find the suggestion offensive as well as 180 degrees out of phase.
I agree with you that racial prejudice is repugnant. Because I believe so, I think it is wrong to focus so entirely on people as members of racial groups. My thinking is that one cannot train one’s mind to value someone as an individual if one is instructed in seeking to categorize an individual according to race, gender, class, religion, etc.
You and I cannot change the way the world works, as you put it; people are going to notice these things, and some people simply are jerks. Nevertheless, we can promote the idea of valuing people as individuals as opposed to representatives of genetic (and other) groups. If one has a political objection to Obama, for example, our default assumption should be that this person is telling the truth and really does object to Obama on his stated grounds, not that his objection is secretly rooted in his dislike for black people. (Along those same lines, if someone has a political objection to McCain, our default assumption should be that this person is telling the truth and really does object to McCain on his stated grounds, not that his objection is secretly rooted in a marked underappreciation for McCain’s time in a Viet Cong prison camp.)
Furthermore, I find this deplorable devaluation of the individual compounded in the present political context, where supposed valuations (after first taking pains to point them out, of course) of a person according to his race, gender, and so forth are merely contingent upon that person’s being in political agreement – disagreement leads to the facially absurd contention that the person is not “really” a member of the groups that align with his genetics.
It is a risible notion in operation that I spoofed, for example, in a December column.
You will perhaps object to my title (, which is admittedly sensational but also, I hope you will see, the reductio ad absurdum of that notion. My approach is humor, but there are serious points behind them (as Aristotle said, a jest that will not bear serious examination is false wit), and I trust that you as someone cognizant of nuance and complexity will appreciate them, regardless of whether you will agree with them. After all, people may share the same values and still differ over how best they may be achieved.
Thank you for writing back so quickly and eloquently. Yours was a meaty response, which I had to take my time to understand and digest.
(Plus there were two Latin phrases and an SAT word – risible – that I had to look up.)
Allow me to answer some of your questions and statements in the order that they were made.
You are wise to avoid speaking for others’ use of the term “the race card” because you don’t know what others mean when they say it, but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook entirely.
I have an on-again, off-again relationship with the word “pimp” precisely because it’s still difficult to maintain a consensus on the entirety of that word’s meaning in the vernacular of today. Is a pimp a flashy dresser who is popular with the ladies? Is a pimp an unbelievable lowlife who exploits women sexually and financially? Is pimp a verb, which means to bedeck with ornate accoutrements? Or is it another verb, to aggressively hawk or promote a product?
The answer, of course, is yes.
Pimp means all of those things.
Which means to use it casually in one way could be seen as an affront to abused women everywhere, while to insist on its absolute banishment could be seen as an attempt by the P.C. police to unnecessarily regulate harmless speech.
In my own writing, I’ve chosen to give up trying to dissuade people from saying the word ‘pimp’ primarily because in the general vernacular it’s moved too far past its original meaning. It feels futile to try and lecture someone on the evils of pimping if I first have to explain that Snoop Dogg stole his whole schtick from Antonio Vargas, who played Huggy Bear on “Starsky and Hutch.” After awhile it just feels like too much water has spilled from that particular dam.
But I still don’t use the word much, and I try to be careful when I do. Maybe you exercise that same level of care when it comes to loaded terms, and I don’t know because all I see is the finished product – your column.
I chose to challenge your use of “the race card” because I don’t think that same evolution of meaning has taken place. Your use of the phrase is not AS morally offensive because I agree with your general premise, which means no, I don’t think my characterization of its typical use applies as much to your column in question. Because you were not using it specifically as a bludgeon against the idea of vigilantly recognizing and regulating our own cultural biases — as opposed to the legions of talking heads who use it in the manner I previously described – I understand your choosing to use it.
But like I said before, that doesn’t mean you’re totally off the hook.
I fear your continued use of the phrase will inadvertently lend credence to the unspoken assumptions that some of your readers may mistakenly assume you have in common – namely, that “the race card” is an unfair advantage, the societal equivalent of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that liberals use to shame regular people into kowtowing to the demands of rabble-rousers and trouble-makers. I understand your need for a comedic device, and I think that one works on that level, but at what cost? Ultimately, I think it lowers the bar more than raises it.
I didn’t call out your use of the phrase “the gender card” or “the class card” because I regard them as derivative phrases you (or someone else) invented to make your point, phrases which are neither as pernicious or popular as the original. If I felt called to be more of an advocate for the poor, or if I were female, I might feel otherwise. This might be hypocritical of me, I don’t know. I just choose to speak up on the things I care about.
Moving to some of the broader similarities and differences in our outlooks on life…
I also agree that “it is wrong to focus so entirely on people as members of racial groups.”
For me, though, the operative word is “entirely.” Having a balanced outlook on our society as a whole requires concurrent understanding of people as both individuals and members of interlocking groups. Family groups, social groups, industry groups, regional groups, even ethnic and cultural groups. I am all for taking the time to stress individual accountability as long as that is balanced by an understanding of corporate culpability. The ramifications of our actions are equally important in both contexts.
By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed the December column you referenced, because I was also entertained (and appalled in equal measure) by Andrew Young’s attempt to disqualify Sen. Obama as not being black enough. That’s part of the reason why I have such a strong sense of personal identification with Obama, because I spent most of my formative years (middle school, high school, and college) trying to battle the horrid fallacy that intellect and analysis is somehow anathema to authentic Blackness. I’m almost ashamed to admit that there were plenty of times growing up when I would’ve traded all of my A’s for a jheri curl and a pair of Air Jordans if it meant I could fit in with some of the cool kids who weren’t as smart (or the others who were, but wouldn’t dare admit it).
I’ve also observed the ridiculous extent to which those on the left have contorted themselves with an Olympian caliber of mental gymnastics when it comes to aligning their political choices to their assumptions about race and class. That’s part of the reason why Senator Obama has been such a lightning rod for criticism on all sides, because his story and political ascent don’t fit into most of the prevailing narrow preconceptions about race and class that have long been unchallenged. This is also why it was inevitable that he would have to part ways with Dr. Jeremiah Wright. A Scripture regarding wine and wineskins comes to mind.
Finally, I also agree with your final statement, which has formed the basis for my wanting to write this blog. People can, and often do, share the same values and goals and still differ on how best to achieve them.
It’s my hope that more people would use the forums at their disposal and be intentional about keeping that conversation going, keeping it respectful, and resisting the urge to let the need for attention hijack our collective capacity for civility.
Thank you for your well-considered response. I certainly understand the frustration of using words that have slippery meanings. I have, for example, maintained an objection against using the word “liberal” to describe someone who favors a strong central government, but it is nigh on impossible to discuss politics without it and not sound stilted, so normally I will put “liberal” in quotations on first use.
I would suggest, however, that you are overlooking context; a word may have many different meanings, so the context in which it is used becomes an important part of defining it. The English language has a particular tendency toward such words.
I think you have no reason to fear my use of “race card” because it is done in the context of mocking the idea of it being used as a “get out of jail free” card. I doubt I could simultaneously lend credence to something I am spoofing.
I am very precise about word choice. That’s not to say I don’t make mistakes, of course; there is invariably at least one thing in each column I regret or wish I had changed. Sometimes many considerations go into a decision over an individual word or phrase, and I cannot expect you to share them all nor give them the same weights as I.
As for your discourse on having a balanced outlook, I will say that I had set forth a general principle that is intuitive, but one of the problems in trying to flesh out an intuitive principle is that words fail to anticipate what discernment can navigate. My concern in this context is foremost the primacy of the individual, and I ratify the principle that all of us, each of us, are created equal in the eyes of God – we have many differences, of course, but we have the same inner nature. If one hews to that principle, then any prejudicial treatment will be hypocrisy — something counter to one’s belief. On the other hand, racism is the logical end of a principle of mentally sorting people first by race.
I wish you all success with your struggle. You seem to set a strong personal example in favor of your chosen path. I cannot imagine it failing to yield fruit; may it be bountiful.
So my final analysis is that Jon Sanders seems like a good guy who probably still has a lot of different ideas than I do about public policy, although he is probably a lot more qualified to speak on policy than I am, being a policy analyst and all. He values the primacy of the individual, and likes long walks on the beach at sunset.
He also likes satire, which makes him a good guy in my book.
I’m not sure I achieved my primary objective (to get him to stop saying “the race card”) but I did achieve my second objective (to demonstrate that those who think differently aren’t necessarily idiots).
My only regret is failing to ask him about “Lost” (since he works for the John Locke Foundation.)
This was so much fun, I’m gonna try it again with someone else.
Thanks to Jon Sanders for mixin’ it up with me.