No bigots on the dart board

February 5, 2008 12:17:13 PM PST
"The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse" by Richard Thompson Ford

The fight against racism is nearing a crossroads, a "crisis of success" that's blurring definitions of discrimination and allowing insidious injustices to persist unaddressed.

As the clearest cases of bigotry have faded with civil rights' progress, our old ways of fighting bias are dangerously outdated but inspiring a host of impostors to co-opt their methods nonetheless.

In his book "The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse," Stanford University law professor Richard Thompson Ford outlines this new ambiguity and one of its most unfortunate results: the race card.

Drawing irrelevant references to race, the race card magnifies minority status or seeks to blame problems on bias, oversimplifying serious social issues to advance self-interest in the name of justice, Ford says.

An example: O.J. Simpson cast the cops as racist and was cleared.

"The race card is symptomatic of a real crisis in the way we currently think and talk about race: a crisis born of our failure to keep up with a changing social world," Ford writes. Because we assume racial wrongs are the work of individual bigots, "when there's no one to blame, we find ourselves without relevant ideas."

Rapper Kanye West was wrong to blame George Bush for his catastrophically slow response to Hurricane Katrina, but he could have blamed an opportunistic Bush instead, Ford suggests. It wasn't, as Kanye declared, that Bush didn't "care about black people," but more likely that he didn't care about poor, black Democrats in New Orleans, who offered him little political gain.

Black Americans bore the disproportionate brunt of Katrina, abandoned not by a racist, but by a legacy of racism that had segregated the city for generations, Ford says. The impulse to blame a lone, living bigot is old and unproductive, eroding trust and neglecting the deeper causes of our problems.

It ignores a new quandary that Ford calls "racism without racists" - and highlights a hard part of dealing with discrimination: the difficulty of deciphering intent.

The law has for decades struggled to define racial bias, wavering between tests for intent or effect, "good cause" and "disparate impact." The answer, Ford says, is only becoming more convoluted: The paradox of progress is that there's often no one to blame.

Yet dozens of "oppressed" offshoots have adopted the technique regardless, playing their own "race cards" at the risk of crying wolf.

Ford roasts their attempts as "racism by analogy," citing serious and silly examples. Gay couples compare their struggle for marriage to the fight for interracial unions, while an obese aerobics instructor, denied a job, sues. PETA animal activists equate meat-eating to the Holocaust.

In subchapters with names like "Fat Is Not the New Black," Ford rebukes these characters' claims, tracing the case law behind them to show that unfairness is not necessarily discrimination. "This makes the fight for social justice an exercise in discretion as well as valor," he says.

Indulgent analogies to racism have diluted civil rights' once clear objectives into a "multiculturalist" stew that puts such an emphasis on diversity and difference, it is spawning a new wave of segregation, he adds.

Ford mocks the tyranny of difference that led the Oakland school board in California to claim Ebonics as a separate language, and inspired "a minor literary genre of 'cooking smells' essays" among college applicants who "waxed nostalgic about the evocative aroma of a distant relative's ethnic cuisine."

More seriously, separatism is breeding de facto segregation, as schools sponsor ethnic clubs and pull bilingual kids into separate language-based courses - corrupting civil rights' integrationist goal, he argues.

"Presuming the worst is understandable in a society in which racism persists," Ford says, acknowledging why reasonable people, including himself, sometimes assume they are targets of bias.

A lasting fix requires pragmatism and prioritization: a willingness to see poverty, unemployment and urban segregation as collective social problems in need of serious policy solutions - and not of "a bigot to paste to the dartboard."