Last year it was Angela Mc-Glowan’s “Bamboozled”; in 2006 it was Juan Williams’s “Enough.” About once a year comes a book by a black writer arguing that black America’s problem is less racism than race hustlers.
Richard Thompson Ford’s “The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 400 pages, $26) is not, despite its subtitle, this year’s version. As a Stanford University law professor, Mr. Ford is too concerned with nuance to write such a polemic, and “The Race Card” is instead a work of long-winded moderation. Most who read it cover to cover will be lawyers. But Mr. Ford’s basic point remains valuable.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, and religion. Since then, it has been common to claim discrimination on the basis of other traits, such as age, attractiveness, and weight. Mr. Ford explains why efforts to invoke the Civil Rights Act in cases like these are mistaken and so often fail. For one, what is often called discrimination against such people is justifiable on an ethical basis, such as a case Mr. Ford reports of an overweight woman who sued when turned down for a job as a Jazzercise teacher. Moreover, there are no self-identified communities hindered from meaningful participation in society by such traits, and there never have been.
Even claims of race-based discrimination are often, today, impossible to defend. The discrimination charge is appropriate when the parameters are as stark as they were during Jim Crow, but only rarely in our more complex modern terrain. As Mr. Ford shows, black people can today suffer from a situation that historical racism caused, but with no living racists to hold responsible. An example is the dismal state of black New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, deep-sixed by old-time racists, but by then run mostly by black people.
Mr. Ford suggests we eschew strained claims of discrimination and work on broader problems of a more complex character. On our priority list, Mr. Ford suggests that “Ghetto segregation should take precedence over ‘retail discrimination’” of the sort that Oprah Winfrey claimed she experienced when an Hermès store employee refused to let her in to shop after hours. Ensuring job security for working people should take precedence over suits claiming that hotel chains or airlines that do not allow employees to wear dreadlocks or cornrows are forcing black people to “assimilate” (Ford also calls for an acceptance of the fact that black Americans, as Americans, will not resist assimilation to mainstream norms).
Mr. Ford will not completely disappoint those seeking a book kicking race hustlers to the curb. I was surprised to read him, a young black professor at an elite school, spelling out in clear language that racial profiling is sometimes necessary to protect minority communities, and that innocents saddled with being searched unnecessarily, while correct to demand civil treatment, must accept this as a tolerable burden, our larger goal being to change the forces that require the profiling in the first place.
Mr. Ford is also to be commended for cutting through unreasoned claims that the disastrous aftermath of Katrina was based on racist neglect. He by no means restricts his criticisms to blacks, deconstructing the willfully ahistorical argument that racial preference policies are “racist” against whites.
Overall, however, Mr. Ford’s interests are much wider than are suggested by the subtitle of “The Race Card.” You wouldn’t know it from the introduction, which includes observations such as that if W. E. B. DuBois wrote a century ago that America’s main problem is the color line, “In the twentyfirst century, will the problem be that everyone talks a good line about color?” Soon afterward, he decries that “The narcissistic confessional substitutes for introspection, cheap theatricality stands in for valuable insight, and simplistic dogma masquerades as analysis.” I suspect that the introduction began as the book’s proposal — book proposals are crafted to grab potential publishers by the collar. What Mr. Ford offers over the remaining 300 pages is less “red meat” than the content of the introduction: that in discrimination cases, both sides usually have arguments that are at least plausible, and that this must inform a decision as to whether and to what degree discrimination operated — as well as the especially delicate decision as to whether the discrimination, if actual, was defensible.
Near the end, Mr. Ford gives away that “the race card” is not, to him, the pressing problem the book’s title, introduction, and ad campaign imply. “Some readers will wish to ask whether I really think playing the race card is now the biggest racial justice issue this society faces. No, I don’t. I hope it’s clear that I believe old-school bigotry remains a severe social problem.”
Mr. Ford writes more as a law professor than as a cultural commentator, and is not the contrarian that the book’s title and publicity have been crafted to imply. His occasional references to “pointyheaded intellectuals” are peculiar, as the book is written for them. His interest is cogitational: identifying where the line is between genuine bigotry and claims of discrimination which, while understandable — and Mr. Ford devotes much text to explaining why they are so — are ultimately untenable.
Would that Ford had had a better editor. The text sprawls and dallies, to an extent that will hinder the book from penetrating the national discourse as effectively as it otherwise could. For example, is there really 40 pages’ worth of anything new to write about the O.J. Simpson case? I surmise that Ford would thrive in the more implacably economical formats of the editorial and the article. Here’s hoping that this book at least serves as a calling card for him to do just that in the near future.
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