Race De-Baiting

Part of our regular series on the book that changed your politics.

Poke through any lawyer's bookshelf and you'll find the beige, dog-eared copy of To Kill A Mockingbird that forever altered the course of their life. I have one too. But the book that has most changed my thinking about both law and politics in recent years is Richard Thompson Ford's The Race Card.

Ford, who teaches at Stanford Law School (and was my professor there almost 10 years ago), explores some simple questions: How can America be beset by racism if there are so few racists? How is it that every national event that touches on "identity politics" is instantly cast in familiar patterns of innocent victims and bigoted haters? If there is anything useful to be learned from the instantaneous bile that spewed forth in the first days of Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, it was that America's true racists are actually few and far between. Most of us are past the race talk of the 1960s and 1970s, even though the political discourse is not.

The Race Card was and is a surprising book from a progressive thinker who has, most recently, been a strong defender of Sotomayor's role in Ricci v. DeStefano, the 2003 so-called "reverse discrimination" case involving New Haven firefighters. This book is not so much an attack on the way liberals think about race as a call for more rigor and honesty. Ford doesn't contend that there's no such thing as racism or racists. But he does wonder whether reflexively flinging down the "race card" (broadened to include sexism, lookism, fatism, and every other -ism) has helped minorities or hurt them. Whether it is Oprah Winfrey's famous ejection from an Hermes store in Paris in 2005 or the post-Katrina claims by Kanye West that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," Ford asks directly if it's useful to rush to the conclusion that racism and bigotry are always to blame.

I have read this book four times, and each time I have come away both chastened and frustrated. That's sort of the point. Ford's larger argument -- that Jim Crow calcified into housing patterns and crime patterns that explain why it wasn't pure racism that made a cab driver refuse to pick Danny Glover up outside Columbia University in 1999 -- is indisputable. But there is still blatant racism in America and sometimes it's the simplest explanation for Sarah Palin's references to "real Americans" or former Rep. Tom Tancredo's grotesque analogy between the National Council of La Raza and the Ku Klux Klan.

Although I hardly agree with everything in it, The Race Card is the book I keep coming back to, after Barack Obama's Philadelphia speech on race and as the "identity politics" pot bubbled over yet again with the Sotomayor nomination. I come back to it because Ford is trying to reframe a conversation about race and gender that has grown predictable. The book is Obama-like in its effort to understand that name-calling ends important conversations before they begin. It has taken me years to understand what being called a racist at his confirmation hearings might have done to Samuel Alito. Ford helps remind us that accusations of racism are too potent to be pressed into daily rhetorical service. Today such accusations mean both so much and so little.

One of Ford's biggest complaints is about "racism by analogy" -- the push to cast everything, from animal oppression, to discrimination against the ugly -- as akin to racism. If everyone in America is throwing down the race card in outrage, everyone is a victim. We are so accustomed to viewing everything through the lens of privilege and victimhood, we fall back on it without even thinking. Ford reminds me, sometimes painfully, that the temptation to respond to every criticism and complaint from the defensive crouch of victimhood is enormous. That's why every philandering politician checks himself into rehab, and why every piece of angry reader mail can be dismissed as "sexist." Playing whatever version of the race card you may hold relieves you of the need to hear your critics. It is an intellectual screensaver that stops us from demanding more of ourselves.

Don't get me wrong. I love To Kill A Mockingbird. I hope my great-grandchildren inherit my copy some day and that it inspires them to stand up to bigots and bullies. But I don't want them to inherit this death spiral of angry politics that we appear to be locked into -- the accusations of racism, reverse racism, and (coming soon!) reverse reverse racism that obscure much deeper and more pressing questions about how our differences matter and how they should not.