When to play the Race Card and Why it is Played

It’s the big, fat elephant in the room whenever a Black person is accused of anything. It’s the silent reality that everyone knows but few articulate whenever a Black person goes to court. It is the subtle assumption when dealing with inequality in America. It is the ever-present Race Card.

The question at hand is, when is it appropriate to justify a situation or an action by the race(s) of the person(s) involved therein? Let’s look at a few examples and try think about it.

Anybody who took a CAAS class at Michigan or has read anything written by a member of the Black intelligentsia knows that race is a social construct, meaning that it is not “real” or “tangible.” The problem is that this “intangible” thing has been and continues to be used against people of the wrong [unreal] race.

The issue though is that race, whether you believe it is real or not, does not exist in a vacuum. It coexists in the complex matrix of circumstance often referred to as reality. In this thing called reality, many things pull many people in many different directions, not the least of these being their racial identification. Also, ones racial appearance and/or identification (which may not necessarily be the same) can and often does effect the perspectives they possess, the choices they make, the actions they take, the circumstances they exist in.

Prime examples are the Gulf Coast Hurricanes of 2005. This site is firmly at odds with the top-to-bottom governmental response [or lack thereof] to the disasters that was Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While I have my own belief that race was the ultimate determining factor and motivation behind the apathy displayed towards the hurricane victims and survivors, I must also realize that other factors played roles. Poverty had a lot to do with the response as well. I do not know of an example where poor white people were in the same position as poor black people and then devastated by such an event. Only if such a case existed would I be able to test the validity of my theory. Regardless, the sad reality is that poverty and race in America are in many cases interdependent. This is just one example of the way that reality partners the real with the unreal, the tangible with the intangible.

So my question then is why do we not more often play the [insert your “real” card here] card. Why do we not focus on the implications of poverty when we talk about racial profiling? Does “poverty profiling” not occur? Does classism not exist in this country? Is it off-base to think that maybe this approach deserves serious consideration? Martin Luther King Jr. began articulating this with his Poor People’s Campaign, which he initiated shortly before he was made a martyr. I do not doubt that this realization was a key factor in his assassination.

Examples of the Race Card gone wrong:
Dante Culpepper saying discrimination influenced charges brought against him and his teammates for an illicit party last year.
– Individuals who claim to do illicit things because black folks don’t have a choice (see some of the comments on this post, even though we all know how I feel about Stan Williams).
These are wrong to me because I don’t feel like race is a valid justification for stupidity, ignorance, or lack of creativity. Race does play a part in molding circumstance, but we do not have to use it to justify negative or hurtful actions.

Examples of the Race Card gone right:
Predatory Lending Practices
Police Brutality
These are cases where it is obvious and proven that race is the determining factor in these situations.

Example that could go either way
Driving While Black
This warrants further explanation before everyone gets pissed at me. The simple example is this: Consider two cases. In case A, I am pulled over for going 5 over in my suburban neighborhood of Farmington at 10 PM on Tuesday night. In case B, I am pulled over for going 25 over in my suburban neighborhood of Farmington at 10 PM on Tuesday night. In case A, I have been found guilty of Driving while Black. In case B, I have been found guilty of Reckless Driving [While Black?]. You decide.


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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

8 responses to “When to play the Race Card and Why it is Played”

  1. Free says :

    Tough issue. When we’ve had so much done to us because we are Black, it’s hard not to question a lot of other things that happen to us. When we get pulled over by cops or are treated less than respectfully by someone, we always have to wonder… And that is what’s so sad.

  2. Garlin II says :

    I agree, and that’s why this is challenging. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that “race” is phenotypically assigned. As a result, this makes it difficult to see other factors that can [and at times do] play a part in the ways we are treated. It is very difficult to know how wealthy a person is by looking at them. This works both ways because not only is a racial phenotype the tool of a prejudiced oppressor, but it is also the tool of the hopelessly oppressed. It is the tool of the latter in the sense that it is often the first thing we fall back on when mistreated.

  3. Dumi says :

    So two thoughts:
    1-social construction does not mean something is not real. Unicorns, leprechauns, not real, race is real. Essentially think of the Thomas Dictum- Things that are thought to be real are real in their consequences. We socially construct almost everything, but we question the realness of stuff when it comes to race. Poverty is just as much a social construction.
    2- I agree we need to address the intersections of these things, but let us not think that one completely explains the other. I study education and the Black-White test score gap is only 1/3 explained by socieconomic factors, carefully keeping them all in the equation is necessary to do the work of change. Just my 2 cents

  4. Garlin II says :

    Dumi [and everyone], I use poverty because it is a readily available and relatively easily measurable characteristic, in my opinion. I do not see it as an end-all-be-all factor, in the same way I am starting to believe that race is not as well.

    The teenager analogy is an interesting one, as it is also essentially a phenotype that can and has been used to discriminate against those identified with/by it.

    The question then evolves into, “how do we deal with [oppressive] social constructions?” Can we do so by defeating stereotypes? I say maybe not, since that is simply updating the social construct, not eliminating it. Can we do so by ignoring them altogether? What are you all’s thoughts?

    (And by the way, I have seen leprechauns in the laundry room.)

  5. Dumi says :

    My gut reaction is that we must acknowledge the construct fully, then desconstruct them until the are LESS consequential than they are now. Ignoring them (Ward Connerly etc.) is a really bad idea. Considering them real and immutable is equally damning. And if you’ve seen little green men in the laundry room, you need to wash your clothes more often… or stop sniffing them!
    p.s. There are huge debates (particularly internationally) on what poverty is and if you can measure it.

  6. Dancewithme2 says :

    This fits in here: CLICK HERE

  7. D. Betts says :

    I’m generally skeptical of people playing the race card, just because I’ve seen it abused too many times (like Daunte Culpepper’s studpid behind). However, I agree it can be used fruitfully.

    On the driving while Black thing: 5 over–probably DWB. 25 over–probably not. Blackness, in that case, is just a confounding variable: it seems related but really you were going 25 over and should have been pulled over anyway.

    I am in complete agreement that the goal is to make race (and poverty) less consequential. However, the question is how is that done? I think no matter what happens we will simply be updating the social construct, because I don’t think the construct of race is going anywhere. It’s too real to too many people. So destroying it completely is slightly unrealistic. I don’t even think I want to destroy the construct of race.

    Dumi (and anyone else), I’m curious as to what you mean by deconstruct the construct. Is it something simple? Or, is it related to the philosophical movement of deconstruction that would require me to investigate what that movement really was?

  8. Dumi says :

    David, it would be the latter. A good place to start would be How racial statistics lie or Critical Race texts. I consider these as beginning the important work of deconstruction, but not deconstruction in a way that is simply post-structuralist babble.

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