So hey, Barack Obama played the race card yesterday. So the McCain campaign tells me, and I’m sure they’d never exploit racial divisions in American society to win a few votes.This is, of course, the worst thing the Obama campaign could do, because as everyone knows, there’s nothing worse in American society than playing the race/gender/sexual orientation/whatever card. It’s unbelievably offensive, far worse than the most pernicious racism or the most deadening misogyny. Indeed, the only reason I don’t blast Obama for this horrible, horrible offense is that, of course, there is no race card. It doesn’t exist.
The race card is a myth, a useful legend, one that racists use to shut up those who complain about racism. This is obvious when it’s given a second’s thought. “Playing the race card” is semantically the same as “critiquing racism.” The latter, of course, is not just good, it’s important, it’s necessary.
But when racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or whatever) is critiqued, it can make those who’ve engaged in racism feel bad. After all, nobody wants to be thought of as a racist, and so rather than listen to the critique of our actions, we say that the person criticizing us is playing the race card, accusing us of being racist — and that this is a grave offense against our person.
But of course, all of us are racists — you, me, John McCain, Barack Obama — there isn’t a person in American society who isn’t affected by our long national heritage of racial degradation. It’s a part of the land here, suffused into the air we breathe. At best, one can be aware of one’s racist tendencies and work to root them out, bit by bit. But the fact is that because we are all somewhat racist, we are all capable of acting in a racist manner, even if we don’t intend to. If we are serious about not wanting to be racist, the only thing we can do is listen to those who see it, to hear and understand the critiques of our actions, to learn from them and improve in the future. It’s not a fun process — nobody likes to have the parts of them they’re not proud of drug out for public display. But the alternative — letting the racism remain unchecked, so that it can metastasize and strangle American society once again…that’s far, far worse than feeling bad about having racist tendencies.
The McCain campaign could have used this as a teachable moment. They could even have listened and defended themselves, saying, “The Obama campaign felt what we said was racist, but it was not. Here’s why.” But of course, they don’t care about racism, unless they can work to exploit it. To use it to gin up animosity toward Obama, to paint him as one of those uppity types who actually cares about racism. That is, in a word, racist. The McCain campaign doesn’t have to like it, but that’s what they are, and they appear happy to work to exacerbate racial divisions, rather than to heal them. I’m not surprised, but I also don’t need to pretend that they’re doing anything other than perpetuating racism. If that’s “playing the race card,” so be it.