Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Crying wolf, keep the race card for special occasions

Today’s battle for a better world in terms of interracial harmony is primarily a war for minds and hearts, or at least it should be. For the most part needed legislation has been enacted, protections are in place, and a prevailing idea that discrimination is unacceptable exists. While the legal work is mostly done, the battle at the real heart of the issue has been neglected. No one is fighting the battle for hearts and minds, the organs where racism generates.

White people think racism is for the most part, over. They may admit to themselves that there are still some racists lying around but they are mostly old people or Nazis, and neither should be taken too seriously. Now while they (we) think racism is mostly dead, there is the idea that there are sentinels standing on watchtowers on the lookout for racists. These lookouts have itchy trigger fingers and there is a fear that with the lack of real targets, pot-shots are being taken at anyone with an open mouth. Consequentially the general white populace no longer appreciates the work of the guards and digressed to living in fear of them. We are afraid that if we talk about race, or even recognize its existence, a shower of accusatory bullets will rain down from the ramparts. These white citizens in our post racial world are feeling oppressed and growing uneasy.
No matter your opinion on how justified this perception or attitude is, realize that it exists and paints all racial interactions with a conspicuous bull’s eye. How the two players interact, and the consequences of that interaction will determine how those players view all racial issues afterward. That is just how our minds work.

A few years ago I moved to Philadelphia and began working with the youth organization of a local church. What I saw was amazing. One young man, whom I will call Jay, had figured out quite well that there were lookouts ready to shoot and that they were on his side. He had also learned that his youth leaders were young white folk, inexperienced in dealing with black youth, and saw the ground littered with egg shells.

Jay was 17 years old and probably weighed 95 pounds. He did not have the money to dress nicely and spoke with a high pitched lisp. He obviously had little to no power in his daily life, but when interacting with these white folk, the guards made him power hungry. He did and said as he pleased. He never followed instructions, made lewd comments to grown women, and no adult ever corrected him. In observing this I had had enough. I stepped in when he made an indecent proposal and all the adults stood in shock as I scolded the youth for saying things he knew were wrong. He said a word unacceptable in a religious (or really any) setting and I sent him to the hallway.
During the interaction he did it. He tried to call for the guards,

“[Brohammas], you doin’ racism to me. Why you pickin on me? You a racist!”

I chuckled at his accusation, looked him in the eye, and told him I was the wrong guy to play that game with. I told him he knew he was wrong and… knock it off. He did. The other adults stood in shock that it was that easy. I’m sure they thought only I could have gotten away with it because of my wife, which isn’t true, any one of them could have said the same thing long before, but they didn’t know that. They still don’t.
No big deal here, stupid kid saying stupid things, that’s all. Problem is that really, most white people have a story like this, or at least they think they do, meaning a friend or a cousin had an instance like this, and it gets told around.

Stories of false accusations of racism are like brushfire in California; they travel fast, do a lot of damage, and whether it’s a threat or not it gets taken seriously. Stories like this hurt “the cause”.

In the mind of a person who thinks racism doesn’t exist these false, or even questionable, accusations just further entrench the belief that there are no justifiable complaints at all. The too oft pulling of the race card has two affects: one, the stifling of any honest discussion of race across racial lines, as the white people are afraid the card will be pulled and the guards will shoot, and two, the destroying of the race cards power for anything but trifling matters. In other words, any time the card is justified, be it a police beating, a loan denied unfairly, or a professional glass ceiling, all those who should take notice and learn, or even better ACT, will assume the this is simply another case of someone crying wolf and do nothing.

I know, it’s a hard thing to ask, and who am I to ask it, but if there is any doubt, and if you really want to make things better, don’t pull the card. Save it for a special occasion. Save it for a time when it will have some power, some affect. Racism is nowhere near dead, and pulling the card when it isn’t justified is helping keep it alive.


Anonymous said...

White people are not afraid of being called racist (if they even think of Black people at all except as a nuisance or blight on their lives)--they never have--what they are afraid of is Black Anger will erupt unto them like lava. That's the one thing this country has never had--Blacks systematically killing them and that is what some White people fear--not this Race Card.

brohammas said...

I'm not sure what white people you are hanging out with but I know readers of this blog who never comment because they are afraid of getting a card pulled on them.

Sure some like Glenn
Beck arent afraid of what they might be called, but he is as representative of whites as Michael Jackson is representative of black people.

Jake said...

I just wanted to comment on your first comment of the blog. As a white person, who is in no ways a representative of a whole race, but as for myself....I have never been afraid of black people as a whole group. I am not scared of the whole population of black people erupting with anger. It is more of a fear on an individual one on one basis that the black person I am engaged with or socializing with or running into at the gas station will think I am discriminating against him. I am afraid of how others will view what type of person I am, not afraid of a whole race, but the person in front of me.

Anonymous said...

Obviously your blog audience is going to be different from the mainstream, i.e., more reflective then the majority of whites who do not relate to Black people and see them as a nuisance, thus my original premise still stands—White people are not afraid of being called racist—they are afraid of Black anger or thinking that Blacks will get special treatment—the Palin rallies and the Healthcare debacle is a prime example. That is if Whites bother to think of Blacks at all.

Winnowill said...


I've read your contributions to Siditty's blog, and have just discovered yours. I'm greatly enjoying it. I don't always agree with your perspective, but you are always offer respectful, reasoned, and intelligent responses.

I think your OP has a great deal of truth to it, and I definitely understand your point. My problem is the use of the term "race card". In their book "Playing the Race Card: Exposing White Power and Privilege", the authors refer to the term as "a rhetorical device used to devalue and minimize claims of racism". The term itself implies illegitimacy and invalidity, regardless of how it is employed. Therefore, it ultimately doesn't matter if it is police brutality, discrimination in lending or employment discrimination, any complaint is rendered useless by calling all such claims, "playing the race card", irrespective of the truth of the claim. Not to threadjack with long quotes, but a Wesleyan University professor who blogs as "Tenured Radical" had this to say: "...when one accuses one's opponent of "playing the race card" one deliberately diverts attention from the cultural, political and social facts of the history of race in America by claiming that such things are -- well, only history. And it articulates racial discourse itself as merely a highly subjective, emotional state of mind, rather than a multi-faceted epistemology that Americans bring to their contemporary social, economic and political encounters because of their collective history."

Admonishing people to be more careful when they make accusations of racism is fine, and wise advice (blogger field negro suggests NY Governor David Paterson take that same advice in a recent post, and uses the same terminology you do). But I think when we reflexively use the term "race card" without challenge, to an extent we've already robbed the far more common legitimate critiques of racism of their power, by submitting meekly to a term that has been largely coopted by the right to keep us from having honest discussions about race. This was my, and many other reviewers and activists, criticism of Richard Thompson Ford's "The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse". Reading both books back to back is an instructive look at how this issue, like everything related to race, can be viewed very differently by different people.

brohammas said...

Winnowill, You are welcome here anytime.
You are completely right in your comment. I am familiar with the writings you quote but I would guess most white readers are not.
Part of the premise of writings is that both black and white are uninformed of each other. We think we know each other but the lack of intimate interraction fosters missconception without realizing it. Taking this one step further is the idea that white people rarely consider race honestly, if ever at all(We agree on this UBJ).
What I see happening is that most all who write or talk on these subjects are in deep and end up writing for each other, rather than writing in the vernacular.
Point being that while the term "race card" is problematic in and of itself, it conveys a quickly understood idea at the surface. An idea that is generally understood by those who are not studied in the deeper meaning or consequences of common terms.
Basically you are working on a graduate level when most of us are Freshman... well, maybe most of us here are seniors or post grad generally but entry level interracial thinkers.
Please frequent our discussions with your visiting professor comments more often.

uglyblackjohn said...

The over use of the Race Card (present understanding intended) does do more harm than good.

A lot of people get stuck on the (imagined)racial aspect of a situation without looking at the (real) social problems.
Palin, Healthcare and government bailouts are social issues - not racial.
Anon. is a good example of those who interject race into a situation where there is no need.
(A white(?) guy using the Race Card)

When a problem really does come down to race (really, Culture), the conversation gets shut down because people are afraid to be honest.
No one likes to admit that their problems are of their own doing - it's just easier to blame others.

SOILA. said...

Uh oh!!!! If I offended anyone in my comments to your last blog post, my deep apologies. Wasn't my intention at all.

Corbie said...

I'm a little late to the party here but just wanted to say 'great post'.

B^4 said...

I've even later, great post, Brohammas.