Ford addresses abuse of race in the media

Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor, delivered this year’s W. Allison Davis ’24 and John A. Davis ’33 Lecture last Thursday, titled “Race Relations in the USA.” An expert in civil rights and anti-discrimination law, Ford centered his talk around topics and excerpts from his recent book, The Race Card: How Bluffing about Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, which argues that “the tactical and cynical use of the accusation of racism [has degraded our] dialogue about race.”

Ford said the book was prompted in part by misconceptions he encountered when teaching anti-discrimination law. There is a widespread belief that law should focus on preventing a “discrete state of mind” – racism and bigotry. In fact, said Ford, the law is “at its worst” when it adopts such a focus. At its best, the law addresses instead the nation’s “unabashedly racist past” and persistent social disparities.

Ford is also frustrated by what he calls the U.S.’s “impoverished discussion” about race. He blames the “profound absence of a serious dialogue” in part on the media, whose “ricocheting from one race scandal to another [causes] race discourse fatigue” among the public. “We have a society saturated by racial anxiety and racial maneuvering,” Ford said, where the constant tit-for-tat regarding race is counterproductive. He hopes The Race Card will be provocative and prompt a more open dialogue that is “not tensed up or closed off” but constructive and even fun.
The three case studies that Ford read from his book were surprisingly humorous. He compared the predictable storyline of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings to an episode of Amos ‘n’ Andy, for example, and mocked conservative resistance to “trendy pluralism” and gender integration.

Ford began with a “classic example” of playing the race card: when a person of color accuses another of racism for his own advantage. Ford wryly portrayed Thomas’ judicial appointment as an attempt by President Bush to appease liberals and the African American community and described the deterioration of the hearings into “American pop theater” once Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment came to light. Nevertheless, Ford finds Thomas’ characterization of the hearings as a “high-tech lynching” inappropriate. “As soon as his nomination was in serious jeopardy, Thomas shamelessly played the race card,” he said.

In his second example, Ford related the story of Jay-Z’s boycott of Kristal Champagne over a comment by the company’s managing director that the rapper took as racist. The remark was in fact only a “wary reaction to hip-hop – a subculture that extols violence and crime,” Ford said, though Jay-Z decided to frame the insult broadly in terms of race.

The third case study involved Hurricane Katrina and Kanye West’s extemporaneous claim during a Red Cross benefit concert that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” West’s comment was no doubt prompted by the government’s mishandling of post-Katrina disaster relief efforts and its disproportionate consequences for black communities. Ford believes, however, that Katrina is “a prime example of a racial injury without racists.” The reason blacks made up the majority of those on rooftops and in the Superdome was not the president’s bigotry, but the segregation of the city by race, a pattern that “took hold of our nation’s cities generations ago, when no one denies that overt racism was the norm,” he said.

Why did these people play the race card? Ford said the primary reason is that racial conflict immediately makes headlines and garners “reflexive public sympathy.” Race “has traction,” so people can often get more attention by invoking race than by arguing a point on other merits.

When race is applied to situations over which two reasonable people can disagree, however – that is, when someone “plays the race card” – there are several consequences that Ford recognizes. First, when allegations of racism are unfounded it “makes it harder for real accusations to be taken seriously.” Another problem is that “accusation of bigotry becomes the focus [and] distracts us from the real issues.” The dialogue becomes a back-and-forth about individuals rather than social problems. This finger-pointing also “engenders an attitude of mistrust,” making people fearful of being called a racist and reluctant to talk about race. “The person who assumes the best of others and offers plausible alternatives to the verdict of racism is typically dismissed as naïve or even complicit in racial injustice,” Ford said.

A further obstacle to constructive dialogue, Ford said, is terminology. The extension of the term “racism” to ideas like “institutionalized racism” and “environmental racism” is “a semantic issue but an important semantic issue” because of the hostility and aggression that racism generally connotes. Though these terms are used frequently by liberals and academics, Ford said, they are “an impediment to a conversation [about race] that includes everyone” because laymen do not understand them. The ill-will associated with racism makes concepts like “environmental racism” seem absurd. A reexamination of our labeling of these phenomena, Ford said, is therefore in order.

Ford also strongly disputed the idea that “if we have the law on our side, we don’t need good will” when it comes to racial prejudice. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded because it changed people’s attitudes, Ford said, not because of legislation or litigation. If you’re suing an employer over job discrimination, chances are you won’t return to work there, regardless of the court’s ruling. “Once you have to go to court, you’ve already lost,” he said.