Much of America's political conversation is couched in code. And so it was that recently the McCain campaign accused Barack Obama of playing the "race card," two four-letter words that, taken together, trail a wealth of innuendo like a comet's tail.
Using the term "race card" as a pejorative is almost always meant to promulgate the big lie that takes hold everywhere from the workplace to the classroom: that black men and women commonly use race as a bludgeon and an excuse, and that they will always blame failures or disagreements on racism.
This is belied by objective reality. To hear tell, you would believe that the world is chockablock with minority lawyers, teachers, construction workers and police officers who spend all their time complaining about institutional racism, calling others out on offensive jokes and assumed stereotypes. But most of us encounter the opposite, the silence of people who learned a long time ago that to get along it's imperative to go along.
In part this is because they're carrying a load on their shoulders. When one of the white guys blows an account, the office line is that he's a loser. But when a black guy does it, it means that they—that's the all-purpose "they," sometimes used interchangeably with "those people"—don't seem to be able to close the deal. Same goes for women, which is one reason the Clinton-Obama rivalry got so pitched during the primaries. Our piece of the pie is small, and often there's only one fork. When someone like Senator McCain says he's opposed to quotas, it sounds like country-club code for "We liked the pie the old way."
It's been rumored that Senator Obama did not include his race on his application to Harvard Law School, but it's probable that at least a few of his classmates would have assumed that his place came to him because he was, in the words of Stephen L. Carter's book title, an affirmative-action baby. That's another weight that successful black Americans carry, the suspicion that they got to wherever they've gone because of special pleadings. Of course there is also affirmative action for well-to-do whites, from legacy college admissions to the old boys' club of hiring and connections. Somehow this is never thought to be the same.
The fallacy at the heart of most discussions of affirmative action is twofold: that it replaced a true meritocracy, and that it means promoting the second-rate. The meritocracy theory requires us to believe that for decades no women and no people of color were as qualified as white men, who essentially had every field locked up. Belief in the ascendancy of the second-rate requires us to demean the qualifications of countless writers, jurists, doctors, academics and other professionals who gained entry and then performed superlatively. Part of the tacit deal for most of them was not that they be as good as their lackluster white male counterparts, but as good as the best of them.
"As good as the best of them" might well have been Barack Obama's slogan as he rose to be editor of the Harvard Law Review, faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School, state representative and U.S. senator. It is easy to see all the ways in which his race could have played a part in his rapid rise, but not necessarily in the way his opponents might suggest. Being an outsider probably taught him how to work well in two worlds, the world of those who take their place of primacy for granted and the world of those who have no such place, or who have to fight for it twice as hard.
Much has been made by Senator McCain's supporters of his history as a survivor of a Viet Cong prison camp, of the broken bones and psychological onslaughts that he withstood for five long years. They argue that such an experience builds character. They should also take note of the challenges faced by a black man in America, challenges that have built Senator Obama's character. These may be harder to quantify than imprisonment and torture, but they are onerous in a different and inescapable way.
The McCain forces have accused the Democratic candidate of injecting race into the campaign. That's silly. The man is black. His candidacy is indivisible from that fact, given the history and pathology of this country. When Senator Obama said that he did not look like the guys on our currency and that his opponents were likely to portray him as Other, he was stating the obvious. Perhaps he was also pointing out that, despite efforts to maintain the status quo by generations of conservatives, this remains a nation so progressive that an American from a group once held as personal property could become president. The suggestion of something untoward was pandering to stereotypes and fear. Senator McCain was playing the Caucasian card.
Does that sound offensive? I suppose it is, just as offensive as styling the race card a pejorative. But any black man or woman in America has heard worse. If people make assumptions about you simply on the basis of your appearance all your life, assumptions ranging from criminality to sloth to unearned opportunity, it can make you bitter and hard and cynical. That none of those things is part of the Obama character means that he has turned his particular version of the race card into an ace and is using it to play with the full deck. That is not a deficit. It is an advantage.