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The Race Card

How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse

Richard Thompson Ford


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ISBN10: 031242826X
ISBN13: 9780312428266

Trade Paperback

416 Pages



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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

What do Hurricane Katrina victims waiting for federal disaster relief, millionaire rappers buying vintage champagne, Ivy League professors waiting for taxis, and ghetto hustlers trying to find steady work have in common? All have claimed to be victims of racism. These days almost no one openly expresses racist beliefs or defends bigoted motives. So, many are victims of bigotry, but no one's a bigot? What gives? Either a lot of people are lying about their true beliefs and motivations, or a lot of people are jumping to unwarranted conclusions—or just playing the race card. As the label of "prejudice" is applied in more and more situations, the word loses a clear and universal meaning. This makes it easy for self-serving individuals and political hacks to use accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of bias to advance their own ends.

Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor, brings sophisticated legal analysis, lively and eye-popping anecdotes, and plain old common sense to this heated topic. He offers ways to separate valid claims from bellyaching. Daring, entertaining, and incisive, The Race Card is a call for us to treat racism as a social problem that must be objectively understood and honestly evaluated.


Praise for The Race Card

"Mr. Ford, a clear and lively writer, probes and prods and provokes as he steers his way through this contested terrain. He takes dead aim at racial opportunists, opponents of affirmative action, multiculturalists and the myriad rights organizations trying to hitch a ride on the successes of the black civil rights movement. All, in different ways, he argues, are playing the race card. All are harming the cause of civil rights . . . Mr. Ford is bracing. He clears away a lot of clutter, nonsense and bad faith. Best of all, he argues his humane, centrist position without apology or hesitation. Sticking to the middle of the road, after all, can be the fastest way to get where you're going. Mr. Ford wants to move beyond name calling and emotional point scoring. Let's reserve the word racist, he suggests, for clear-cut instances of bigotry, and address more subtle problems of racial prejudice as we do air pollution, instead of rape or murder."—William Grimes, The New York Times

"[A] sharp, tightly argued and delightfully contentious work . . . To left-leaning readers and victims of genuine racism, Ford's relentless evenhandedness and cost-benefit balancing act may seem at times to skirt the edges of conservative reaction. But a patient reading of this astute and closely reasoned work reveals an exquisitely subversive mind. Ford is adept at stealing the best-defended intellectual bases of the right on behalf of a pragmatic, antiracist liberalism unflaggingly committed to the increasingly scorned goal of integration—and to relief for the truly disadvantaged, who suffer the persisting injuries of past racism in the absence of those who engendered their plight and, perplexingly, in the presence of growing racial tolerance."—Orlando Patterson, The New York Times Book Review

"The fear that opportunistic claims of racism will make reasonable ones suspect has long since been confirmed. As a result, there is a well-primed audience for Ford's funny, if familiar, tales of how the race card gets played, but once readers move beyond the passages on Thomas and Simpson, they will find themselves on much more challenging terrain. When Ford delves into the intricacies of post-racist America, the book crackles with insight and pierces the pieties of left and right."—Daniel J. Sharfstein, The Washington Post

"In this provocative and thoughtful book The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, Stanford Law Professor Richard Thompson Ford presents a well-timed argument for a 'post-racist' understanding of the national landscape . . . Ford's book is particularly timely in the wake of the discussion surrounding Barack Obama's rabble-rousing minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright . . . Readers interested in civil rights, and employment law in particular, will find this book illuminating and thought-provoking. But The Race Card should not be read only by readers with those interests. It deserves a much broader readership of 'liberals' and 'conservatives' of all races, since the issues and concepts discussed are so fundamental to an understanding of current society. Fortunately, Ford writes in a lively, entertaining style, belying the seriousness of his topic."—Fabio Bertoni, New York Law Journal Magazine

"Ford's The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse brings the sharp, nuanced yet stylish analysis of a 42-year-old black Harvard Law School graduate (same class as Barack Obama) and Stanford law professor to a pattern of behavior and media events that can elude you until you recall the examples: Ford cites the Tawana Brawlet case. The 'Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill' hearing—described by Thomas as a 'high-tech lynching.' O.J.'s murder trial. Rapper Kanye West's declaration that President Bush 'hates black people,' making his handling of Katrina's victims racist. Philosopher Cornel West's reminiscence of how his 'blood began to boil' when nine cabs passed him by at Park Avenue and 60th. Michael Jackson's contention that his record company's 'racist conspiracy' drove down his sales . . . Ford astutely sees these events as linked by family resemblance, but still in need of individual analysis. And so he offers much, mixing the sarcasm of a journalist with the exacting logic of a law professor. Ford understands term-of-art legal doctrines such as 'disparate impact' in evaluating racism in discrimination law, but he never loses his pragmatic, common-sense grasp of how social problems arise, and how to solve them. The result? A superbly enlightening reflection on how America should confront its authentic legacy of racism . . . No one, however, has combined Ford's sophisticated use of political theory and law with such punchy prose. One may disagree with Ford on whether we now live in a 'post-racism' society, but The Race Card brilliantly forces thinking on practices such as profiling to new levels of candor and complexity. Were the author and Obama pals at Harvard? Who knows? But on evidence of this book, Ford would make an incisive attorney general."—Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"The Race Card aims to recast how Americans talk about race and racism and to make racial discourse less scandal-centered and less accusatory . . . There is much to recommend in The Race Card. Ford writes with breadth, energy and well-aimed wryness. A law professor at Stanford, Ford puts to rest forever one wag's notion that a lawyer's prose will 'resemble a cross between a nineteenth-century sermon and a treatise on higher mathematics.' Even Ford's discussion forms of discrimination sweeps the reader along. Ford does not carry water for any particular political faction or ideological camp. He critiques in every direction. He does not flinch when such luminaries as Alice Walker or Cornel West come into his line of fire. Even in his most tangential moments, Ford delivers. If you harbor vague misgivings toward People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (which compares cattle ranching to slavery), read Ford's brief discussion, and they will crystallize into healthy antipathies . . . Finally, Ford correctly insists that we need to put our racial discourse on a broader, more rational footing. Discrete episodes of putative racism rarely offer teaching moments. Instead they serve as shadow-plays interpreted in accordance with individual predilections, prejudices and politics."—Kevin M. Doyle, America

"Ford provides a number of anecdotes and analyzes them in detail . . . The Race Card is a thoughtful book, and wonderfully written . . . Pay attention to some of the lessons he provides."—Robert VerBruggen, National Review

"Rich Ford brings together here his deep knowledge of the law, his intense sensitivity as a reader of contemporary culture, his deep seriousness, and his wonderful sense of humor—and harnesses them all to an immensely important question: now that our civil rights regime is more than 50 years old, can we change it to deliver on our promise of racial justice? His answer is yes, but only if we're willing to kill cows that have become sacred to the left as well as to the right. This profound book should change the terms of the debate—and change what we actually do. If you're ready to question some of what you think you know about race and equality in America—read this book."—Janet Halley, Royall Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

"Analysts of racial controversies are typically either clearly identifiable as conservative or liberal. And their discussions are almost always deadly serious. In The Race Card, Richard Thompson Ford is none of these. He invigorates otherwise stale debate about race-related controversies with the fresh air of insight that doesn't hew to any ideological line. Ford's analysis may well stir the ire of those on both sides of the political divide. The Race Card is not only incisive and idiosyncratic, it is also witty and entertaining. Ford makes even well worn debates seem new and interesting. This book provides a vision of how to move beyond our current racial impasse. It's a good read too!"—R. Richard Banks, Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, Stanford Law School

"Richard Ford has come along and done the impossible: he's rendered a book about the relationship between Blacks and Whites in America in Technicolor. Engagingly written and urgently argued, Ford's take on how identity politics in America have gone horribly wrong manages to be both provocative and fair. Pulling string from both pop culture and serious legal thought, this book should be read by anyone interested in getting out of the depressing cycle of race-scandal, recrimination, race-scandal, that has come to characterize the national conversation about getting along."—Dahlia Lithwick, Slate columnist

"A well-considered, nuanced look at ‘post-racist' America. Since the 1960s, writes Ford, racism has become socially and legally unacceptable, reflecting a major change in our values. Today's racism is far more complex and ambiguous, a matter of interpretation and a card that can be played to one's advantage. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas accused his critics of bigotry; Michael Jackson blamed prejudice for his declining album sales; Oprah Winfrey suggested skin color was a factor in her being turned away by a chic Paris store; O.J. Simpson's lawyers alleged his framing by racist cops. Since such accusations are plausible in America, Ford avers, questionable claims are often made. His reasoned text delves behind the headlines to examine these and lesser-known accusations of bias. He finds an instance of ‘racism without racists' in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, where government ineptitude combined with the legacy of pre-civil-rights-era housing segregation to victimize African-Americans. Elsewhere, he sees accusations of ‘racism by analogy' when people charge discrimination over their size or appearance, as if to invoke the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination strictly on the basis of ‘race, color, sex, national origin, or religion.' Noting that there has never been a ‘weight riot,' he explains, ‘Weightism or lookism aren't problems of social order or of social injustice.' The real danger in unmerited charges of racism, Ford concludes, is that they draw attention to trivial slights and distract from the pressing need to address larger social injustices. He writes with authority, fairness and even humor as he examines profiling, affirmative action and other issues, reminding us that we have come a long way on race but still have a great distance to go. Provides welcome perspective on an explosive topic."—Kirkus Reviews

"Today's race relations, law professor Ford demonstrates, are more complex and contradictory than those of the unambiguously white supremacist past. In this journey through a political minefield, he examines dubious charges of racism and other kinds of bias, while acknowledging that exaggerated claims can piggyback on real examples of victimization . . . He revisits Tawana Brawley, Clarence Thomas, O.J. Simpson and Hurricane Katrina, along with Oprah's Hermès problem, Jay-Z's with champagne and Danny Glover's with New York City cabdrivers. Yet at its core, this book raises probing questions about the extent to which the extraordinary social and legal condemnation of racism and other social prejudices encourages people to recast what are basically run-of-the-mill social conflicts as cases of bigotry. By analogy, he addresses issues concerning animal liberation, gay marriage, appearance discrimination, sex harassment law and multiculturalism. In delineating the differences between formal discrimination, discriminatory intent and discriminatory effects, Ford also reviews thorny legal cases involving, for example, McDonnell Douglas and Price Waterhouse. Readers all along the political spectrum will find much to please, annoy and provoke thought about the thin line between invidious discrimination and plain old unfairness."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


In November 1987, a deputy sheriff was dispatched to an apartment building in Dutchess County, upstate New York. There a resident of the building led him to a large plastic garbage bag that contained a seemingly unconscious Tawana...



Richard Thompson Ford on Race in the Media

Watch this video to hear Richard Thompson Ford, author of The Race Card, criticize ways in which issues of racial prejudice are discussed in American media and popular culture. This event took place at Cody's Books in Berkeley, CA in 2008.