Crying Wolf

Reviewed by Daniel J. Sharfstein
Sunday, March 9, 2008


How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse

By Richard Thompson Ford. Farrar Straus Giroux. 388 pp. $26

I've been accused of being a racist once in my life, shortly after a street vendor in Dakar, Senegal, asked the equivalent of $50 for a seashell glued onto a piece of maroon leather. I was 22 and no expert on African art, but this tchotchke did not look like a big-ticket item. When I declined in halting French, the man leaned close, looked me right in the eye and said, "Why do you hate black people?" After a slow second of guilty panic, I walked on, chalking up that exchange to the glory of capitalism. Given the sensitivities of young white Americans traveling through West Africa, the accusation was smart business.

In The Race Card, Stanford Law professor Richard Thompson Ford suggests that there is an equally robust market for unfounded claims of racism in the United States, but the consequences are more serious. As Ford sees it, the successes of anti-discrimination laws and the civil rights movement not only have encouraged African Americans to overplay the race card, but have also spawned legions of dubious imitators. For example, Michael Jackson accused Sony of a "racist conspiracy" when his album sales slackened. And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals compared beef industry practices to slavery and lynching. As a result, legitimate claims of bias are undermined and political capital is diverted from what Ford terms "the persistent and destructive legacy of overt racism of the past": segregated schools and neighborhoods and epidemic levels of poverty, unemployment and imprisonment.

While the book covers many of the great moments in the history of the race card -- the Tawana Brawley hoax, Clarence Thomas's confirmation, O.J. Simpson's (first) trial -- Ford devotes most of his intellectual energy to scrutinizing our present-day "post-racist" society, in which the "rhetoric of racism" is a "national patois." It is a world in which racial inequality is palpably present, but there are no individual racists to blame. Everyone can agree that racism is wrong, but in areas such as employment law, affirmative action and racial profiling, it is difficult to define discrimination in the first place. People commonly link gay marriage debates and bias claims based on weight, appearance and cultural difference to the struggle for civil rights, but, Ford argues, the analogies are far from convincing.

Ford worries that when people play the race card, it "effectively silences those who would call their bluff," but he ignores the veritable industry of bluff-calling that has blossomed with Fox News and right-wing talk radio. 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. His discussion of employment discrimination doctrine is a masterful primer for the general reader, coupling a cogent critique of "color-blindness" with a provocative argument -- explored at length in his 2004 book Racial Culture: A Critique-- that workplace bias against seemingly race-specific behavior is not necessarily racism. A neutral corporate grooming code, for example, may keep African American women from wearing cornrows, but to Ford, a hairstyle has to be regarded as "freely chosen behavior." To say it's a racial trait would make any "failure to tolerate nonmainstream norms and practices . . . racism-like bias" and would destroy the political consensus behind anti-discrimination laws.

Similarly, he defends affirmative action with an old-fashioned commitment to integration and the assimilative function of a university education, rather than the "questionable and convoluted justification" of diversity.

The legacy of Jim Crow is more pervasive than Ford allows. He suggests, for example, that the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina can be attributed to President Bush's narrow political self-interest, not to his racism. But Ford doesn't address the modern Republican Party's calculated strategy to become the party of segregationists and white Southerners. Similarly, if discrimination against Spanish speakers seems distinct from race in the abstract, language was an unsubtle proxy for race in segregated schools, workplaces and jury pools in the American Southwest for much of the 20th century. But this history only heightens the urgency of today's problems, to which Ford, in his pragmatic and passionate effort to redefine civil rights, brings a jolt of clarity. *

Daniel J. Sharfstein is an assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt University.

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