Slate contributor Richard Thompson Ford was online at Washingtonpost.com on Jan. 24to discuss his new book, The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, and offered ways to separate valid claims of prejudice from mere bellyaching. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Richard Thompson Ford: Hello, I’m Rich Ford, thanks to everyone for your interest in my book, The Race Card, and for taking the time to submit your questions today.
Albuquerque, N.M.: Professor Ford, I found your article in Slate about the lack of racism implicit in the Bush administration’s response to Katrina and New Orleans to be very interesting. Let’s say (heaven forbid) that Katrina had hit West Palm Beach; do you really think the administration’s response would have exhibited the same indifference and lack of engagement that we saw in New Orleans? Would those residents of West Palm Beach still be living in the same formaldehyde-infused mobile homes that the people in New Orleans have been stuck in? Would there be the same massive level of indifference from the federal government towards those people?
Richard Thompson Ford: No, I don’t think the reaction would have been the same. But I’m not convinced the reason for the difference is racism. Instead, I think it’s politics. In a part of the book we could excerpt, I argue that the Bush response was a combination of ideological opposition to social programs, which left FEMA ill prepared for a disaster of this scale, and indifference to a population that didn’t vote for him and would be unlikely to swing elections to Republicans in the future. This has predictable racial consequences, but I do think it’s distinct from racism in the classic sense that Kayne West evoked when he said Bush doesn’t care about black people. My larger point is that a racial injustice occurred even without a racist to blame for it—hence the title of that Chapter of the book, “Racism Without Racists.”
Shaker Heights, Ohio: I read excerpts from your book, and I am amazed you are using examples of upper-echelon rich people as support for your thesis deploring the use of the so-called race card. What about ordinary people who endure overt bigotry in hiring and promotion? Why have you fallen into the lexiconic trap of using that ridiculous phrase? I was born into this world black and female. Navigating America is not and has not ever been a card game, and I am tired of the media and others reducing racial attitudes ingrained in the majority culture to a lazy catch phrase. You obviously are capitalizing on it to make money, not engender thoughtful discussion. Shame on you.
Richard Thompson Ford: I can see you’re angry, but let me explain why I wrote this book. For me the term “The Race Card” evokes the cynical, aggressive, adversarial use of and reaction to accusations of bias. So my point is to explore the “lexiconic trap” as you put it, of the phrase—why is it so commonly used and what social conflicts does it reflect. I do in fact discuss at length the plight of ordinary people who suffer racial injustices—both those caused by bigots and those caused by social forces, the legacy of past discrimination, indifference, and misunderstandings. You may think the examples in the excerpts aren’t representative—fair enough. But they do reflect a social phenomenon and a rhetorical use of claims of bias—by both left and right and by people of all races, that demands examination. I think we can do better in addressing the many racial injustices that remain if we break out of the familiar adversarial cycle of fingerpointing, defensive reaction and digging in of heels that has come to characterize race relations today. As for your speculation as to my motivations—first of all, you don’t know much about publishing if you think writing books on social issues is a way to get rich, and honestly, you could register your objections without unfounded and gratuitous ad hominem attacks. Thanks for thoughtful question, but for the last bit, shame on you.
Rockville, Md.: Thanks for taking my question(s). How do you define “racism”? Do you see a difference between unconscious reactions and assumptions, as opposed to acts of deliberate malice? If you think the former is a type of racism, how do you propose fostering discussion about internal prejudices without people immediately recoiling for fear of being accused of racism?
Richard Thompson Ford: How we should define racism is a question at the heart of the book. I devote a chapter to it, exploring the legal definitions of unlawful discrimination (there are several—not just one) and also the common social understandings of racism. I also talk about unconscious bias and some of the methods used to uncover it, such as the Implicit Association Test. It’s hard to talk about unconscious bias right now because people still immediately hear the word “bias” as a moral accusation. But these studies show us that bias is probably pervasive in society, and that people can’t help but make the negative associations with race that the media and our history has conditioned us to make—in fact, even most blacks seems to exhibit them. I’d like to see more discussion of how we can fix the social conditions that lead people to make negative association and less moralistic accusation. This isn’t to say there are no more old school bigots—but I do think that most of the racial problems in our society are now caused, not by virulent racists, but by old habits, entrenched patterns of behavior and the legacy of past racism— and decent people may be involved in perpetuating these evils even though they don’t mean anyone ill.
Ocala, Fla.: Let me preface my remark by saying that I am a white man. Although there have been strides in our society, the reality is that millions of white men still deny black/Mexican men two of our basic freedoms, whether inwardly or outwardly: the freedom of association, and the freedom to live where they want to. In other words, they think “don’t even think about trying to move next door to me, and don’t you dare try to get close to my daughter.” I don’t see a change in those freedoms for another three or four generations. Until then, race is the issue in our country.
Richard Thompson Ford: One issue I spend a lot of time on in the book is residential segregation. I think this is the single more severe racial problem in the United States today and a lot of the other racial injustices we face—poverty, joblessness, poor schools, crime, and disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates—are all either caused or exacerbated by segregation. I agree that there are still a lot of old school bigots with the attitude you mention. Nothing I’ve written is meant to suggest otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t also use and exploit these real racial injustices by claiming bias where it’s not really at issue. Moreover—and this is the heart of the book—there’s a lot of legitimate disagreement about when racism is in play, how to define racism and how many of today’s social evils are caused by racism as opposed to other forces—poverty, the change from an industrial to postindustrial economy, etc. We’ve sort of run aground in terms of race relations because so much of debate hinges on finding a racist—the left too often insist that if there’s a racial problem, there must be a blameworthy racist to pin it on, and the right insists that if you can’t find an evil racist, then there’s no problem and no obligation to do anything about the many racial inequities that still face us. This leads to the problem of “The Race Card”—people insist on racism because that’s the only way to get anyone to address pressing social evils. But insisting on racism leads other, often decent and fair minded folks, to get defensive and resentful. Everybody winds up bluffing and posturing and as a result, race relations are worse. It’s possible that race is the issue—or at least a major issue—but the response needn’t be to look for a racist every time.
Alexandria, Va.: I really enjoyed your Slate article and have many questions for you. However, as a white woman, I have been told that I am not allowed to have an opinion because I don’t understand. Just saying…
Richard Thompson Ford: Point taken. I think “it’s a Black Thing—you wouldn’t understand” is as insipid a statement as “My Country Right or Wrong.” We’re all in this together and if white people are unable or unwilling to weigh in candidly on racial issues, I don’t think we’ll get very far in cross-racial understanding. Your concern is one of the main reasons I wrote this book—to try to open up a little space for people to discuss racial issues without honestly and without censorship. Right now, we have two extremes: politically correct tiptoeing and shock-jock provocation. I hope you change your mind and go ahead and ask your questions and voice your opinions
New York: Is it your contention the disparate sentences for crack versus powder cocaine are not the result of willful racial bias?
Richard Thompson Ford: Let’s unpack this for a minute. Criminal sentencing legislation is the result of a lot of different people coming to a compromise for a lot of different reasons. Do I suspect that some of the people who supported these sentencing guidelines were motivated by racial animus. Yes, I do. Do I think everyone who supported them was? No, I don’t. Crack cocaine was a huge problem in inner city communities in the 1980s—not just addiction and all of its horrific effects, but also the turf battles and violence that came with it. Power cocaine did not by and large produce similar problems. And it was black communities that suffered the most from the crack cocaine trade. So the sentencing was also motivated by a legitimate desire to stamp out an extremely destructive criminal trade with lots of bad consequences for African Americans. I personally don’t think the War on Drugs crackdown was sound policy and I do think the incarceration of lots of black men for relatively minor crimes is both a mistake and an injustice—one of the worst racial injustices our society faces, along with the residential segregation that keeps these ghetto neighborhoods vulnerable to crime and violence in the first place. But I think the question of whether the disparity in sentencing is the result of racial bias is more complex than your question suggests
Arlington, Va.: I enjoyed your article on Slate and was wondering if you devote any space in your book to reacting to racist accusations. After Kanye’s comment about Bush I remarked one day that it’s hard not to think that Bush is a racist sometimes, and I was informed by a black colleague that as a white person I am not allowed to discuss racism because I have no idea what it’s like to be black. Experiences like that make it hard to empathize, especially when I grew up poor in a trailer park where both of my parents died because of alcoholism. People assume that because I am white that I am privileged, and I am finding it hard to “feel sorry” for people because they are simply not white. Which in effect seems like racism because I am being forced to treat non-whites differently for fear of upsetting them.
Richard Thompson Ford: I hate the idea that you’re not allowed to discuss racism because of your race. How can we hope to improve race relations if most of the people involved are not allowed to join a civil conversation about the issues. A lot of the book is about the reactions to these accusations—I try to explore when and why people make accusations of bias, when such accusations have merit and when they don’t and to discuss the cost of making accusations when they aren’t warranted. One of those costs is that people just stop talking to each other and we settle into an attitude of mutual suspicion and resentment. I hope you don’t give up and keep trying to engage people of all races on these important questions
Silver Spring, Md.: Racism is not something that is always perpetuated by evil racists. Racism is racism—it doesn’t become something less because a person is supposedly “decent” and appears to have no ill will, or because the person who is racist is the same color of the race that they are prejudice toward. (Black folks have been brainwashed since slavery to feel inferior.) I think that is the problem: firstly, the belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others, and secondly discrimination or prejudice based on race. This is racism! It needs to be applied equally without all these qualifying outs.
Richard Thompson Ford: I agree with some of what you say. I entitled a chapter of the book “Racism Without Racists” precisely because I do think we can have racial injustices without racists. But too often we act as if there must be a racist to blame when there is a racial problem and people blame the guy nearest to hand.
I also spend a chapter of the book exploring different legal and social definitions of racism. In the law, we find that “discrimination on the basis of race” is extremely hard to define—it’s an ideologically contested term—not the simple matter you imply it is here. I hope the book helps people to think through the issues your question has raised.
Washington: Have you seen the John Stewart video on the “Race Card”? Extremely relevant.
Richard Thompson Ford: I haven’t seen it but I’m going to as soon as I’m finished here—thanks for the tip
Richard Thompson Ford: Thanks to everyone who submitted questions. I would like to have answered them all, but time wouldn’t permit. My apologies to people who I couldn’t answer.