This is a revised version of an essay that appeared earlier on DailyKos.
Right-wingers love the phase “the race card.” They drum it into our heads, flood the media with its repetitions, and sponsor the publication of articles, tracts and books that condemn African Americans—at every opportunity and on widely disparate occasions—for “playing the race card.” Its use is so ubiquitous, so pervasive, that it’s crept even into the vocabulary of some progressives, who invoke it to criticize and silence African Americans who point out racism within the progressive movement itself.
As a white, antiracist progressive, I find this both a sad testament to the power of right-wing propaganda, and an appalling example of the unexamined racism that unconsciously underlies much contemporary white progressivism. Most progressives who use the phrase do so unselfconsiously, as if its meaning were widely understood and the conclusion foregone, but an examination of the assumptions and arguments that underlie the phrase easily reveal it to be completely counter to the principles of progressive politics.
Scholar Linda Williams, who wrote a whole book on the history of “the race card” as a concept, argues that the term is part of “an extended cycle of racial melodrama seeking to give a ‘moral legibility’ to race.” And melodrama it is, invoking the image of a super-charged “card” (racial guilt on the part of whites) which allows magically powerful African Americans to subjugate whites. In the drama, the use of this “card” makes white people helpless to defend themselves or their own rights because they are consumed by guilt. Resisting the card, then, becomes a kind of white heroism: “standing up to” those dominating African Americans who are “trying to take away our rights.” This particular melodrama conveniently omits any reference to the centuries-old structures of institutional racism upon which the Republic was built, and which we progressives are allegedly dedicated to disassembling.
Let’s get it straight, right from the beginning: it’s not true that white Americans can be reliably persuaded through “white guilt” to rectify racial injustice. And it’s an outright myth that African Americans can wield guilt to force white Americans to give up privileges, even when it would be fair and just to do so. All progressives know this, both from the empirical evidence, and also from an honest scan of our moral conscience. If white guilt were really a huge motivator for setting right the wrongs done to African Americans—in the past and in the present—we progressives wouldn’t be trying to fix problems like gross race-based inequities in the justice system, environmental racism, disproportionate suffering of African Americans in the foreclosure crisis, from unemployment in the recession, and so on. Instead, we’d be seeing an America where African Americans—through the alleged power of their card playing—were as well off as white Americans (or at least making steady gains on them). That’s just not true by any measure we progressives honor.
So why are we so tempted to buy into the “playing the race card” rhetoric? Maybe it’s because some of us are racists, and are attracted to the term for the same reason that other racists are attracted to it: it conveniently places blame on the victim. Our racism may unexamined, but it is still there in many of us (maybe in most of us, to some degree), and this convenient melodrama allows us to avoid confronting it. But I’m giving my readers the benefit of the doubt and assuming that you—like me—don’t want to be racist, and want to rid yourselves of any commitment to white supremacy that you still possess.
Some of us who use the term actually do feel guilty about our unearned privileges. It’s a reasonable feeling, to be ashamed that you can live a certain lifestyle that is denied your black peers simply because of the color of their skin. I feel a certain amount of guilt every time I walk into a department store and can be secure that no security guard is following me around, assuming I’m a thief. I feel a certain amount of shame when I’m shown a prime window-seat table in a restaurant and can feel secure that no host/ess is going to seat me in a corner at the back. I feel some guilt when I’m sure that I’d have been treated differently by a car salesman, a bank teller, or any other random professional if I weren’t white. I hear the stories my black friends and colleagues tell, and I read the evidence of discrimination, and there are places I’ve stopped patronizing—not because they treat me badly, but because they treat black people badly. Something, by the way, I wouldn’t have known if black people hadn’t told me and I hadn’t listened.
So guilt can make you feel bad. But as ntozake shange once wrote:
one thing i don’t need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
i don’t know what to do wit em
they dont open doors
or bring the sun back
they dont make me happy
or get a mornin paper
didnt nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars
cuz a sorry
And this is something I think white progressives have really got to deal with. Your guilt is personal. If you feel bad that you have something that another person—through no fault of their own—can’t have, that’s evidence that you’re a thoughtful, moral, feeling human being. Guilt is only destructive when you feel it for the wrong reasons. When you feel it for the right reasons, it’s your moral compass telling you to move in another direction. Guilt is what you feel when you’re sitting on your ass. If you get up and start moving, start being actively anti-racist, then you’ll be aware that you’ve got more privileges than your African American friends and colleagues, but you’ll stop feeling miserable about it. Instead you’ll feel empowered to start acting as a force for positive change, and you’ll use your unearned privileges (and also your earned ones) to make life better and more equitable for other people. And, at heart, isn’t that what being progressive is all about?
If you look at it this way, you’ll have less urge to be defensive when you hear black progressives talking critically about “white people” or “white progressives” as an aggregate group. It’s something all of us have to learn when we’re working with the members of oppressed groups (men have to learn this about working with women, too).
Although Republicans love to deny any kind of institutional bias, a basic tenet of progressivism is that we recognize the institutional nature of oppressions. This means that although we recognize everyone is a unique individual, we reserve the right to talk about categories of people. Thus, it matters to progressives that, for example, a grossly disproportionate percentage of the U.S. prison population is black, Hispanic or Native. If we were Republicans, we’d brush this off with some rhetoric about “individual responsibility” or the “pathology” of the black family, etc. But as progressives we realize that there are social forces and institutionalized oppressions that result, unfairly, in the imprisonment of too many minorities. We recognize the unfairness of all-white juries convicting black defendants because we recognize the existence of prejudice in white juries as a group (whatever the characteristics of the individual white people involved). This imbalance in institutionalized power is what we need to keep in mind when we hear black progressives and activists criticize “white people” and “white progressives” as a group.
We white progressives need to not take it personally. Unlike our guilt, which is indeed personal, critiques of whites as a category are arguable. This means that they can be supported with evidence and logical argument, and it means that even if we, as individuals, feel we don’t represent the overall description of the group, bringing up our own anecdotal reactions is more distracting than it is illuminating. For example, if people with “white names” receive 50% more callbacks for interviews than people with “black names,” it is not relevant that you, personally, recently hired an African American woman named Shandrice. If you want to stay progressive, you need to focus on the real point of the argument, which is employment discrimination against blacks.
Likewise, it is not relevant if you were once passed over for a job by a black interviewer, or even if you have several friends who’ve told you stories of being passed over by a black interviewer. The statistics simply don’t support your belief that you are a member of a victimized group; instead, they support arguments that black job-seekers are discriminated against. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t, personally, have this experience, but it does mean that your experience does not represent a larger structural problem.
We are better than Republicans precisely because we can separate the personal from the categorical. As progressives, we can understand that, against our will, we are trapped in systems that promote inequality and that privilege some of us, while discriminating against others of us. We are better than Republicans because we still believe in the empirical method, and we still believe in counting things, and we still believe that logical argument is the best way for arriving at an accurate conclusion.
The Republican Way is seductive, though, because it’s all about appeasing our sense of being personally slighted, and it encourages us to focus our anger on ready targets (like our African American peers) instead of on the larger systems that create inequities and are so much harder to challenge. The Republican Way allows us to substitute emotionally charged phrases like “the race card” for critical analysis of factors that create inequality. Most of all, the Republican Way offers us the salve of justification for our unearned privileges, but it’s the same sort of “cure” that clearing a street of homeless and poor people provides to the rich patrons who look out the windows of fancy restaurants. In short, the Republican Way is to protect ourselves from both the inadvertent and deliberate pain we cause others. As progressives, we must seek other, harder, but ultimately more rewarding solutions, and we must do it in solidarity with our most oppressed members.
Next time you have the urge to say to some African American progressive that s/he’s “playing the race card,” I suggest you check yourself. Examine your own sense of guilt (or lack thereof) and consider the reasons for it. And then, instead of dismissing the argument your black progressive peer is making, try engaging with it. Find out the assumptions backing the charge of racism, and the evidence that supports it. And then, if you disagree, argue those points constructively, with the goal of extending knowledge rather than shutting down discussion. Because once you say s/he’s “playing the race card” you’ve made it clear that you’re not listening.