The Race Card

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Jan. 22 2008 10:23 AM

The Race Card

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This week, Slate is publishing three exclusive excerpts from The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, by Richard Thompson Ford, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2008).Ford examines the claims of bias that pervade modern American discourse in an attempt to understand why a growing number of people claim to be victims of bigotry in a country with fewer and fewer real bigots. In today's selection, drawn from the introduction, Ford examines the case of rapper Jay-Z, who called for a boycott over a champagne maker's snobbish remarks about champagne and hip-hop culture.

In 1903 the black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois opined that "the problem of the twentieth century is the color line." In the twenty-first century, will the problem be that everyone talks a good line about color?

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Today the rhetoric of racism is a national patois, spoken fluently by ghetto hustlers and Wall Street stockbrokers, civil rights agitators and Republican Party hacks, criminal defense attorneys and Supreme Court nominees. Lawyers and judges and parishioners and priests have mastered the sleight of hand required to play the race card.

Wealth and privilege are no impediments to deploying the race card. Nor, for that matter, is race. Upper-class WASPs complain of "reverse racism"—a melodramatic description of integrationist policies that no one believes are motivated by racial animus or bigotry. And if race isn't directly involved, you can always insist that whatever's eating you is like racism. Opponents of same-sex marriage aren't just narrow-minded religious zealots; they're the moral equivalent of the KKK. A rule that requires obese passengers to buy the number of seats they occupy—which in crowded coach class may be two—isn't a way to ensure that other customers get their share of scarce elbow room; it's like making Rosa Parks stand in the back of the bus. A dress code against tattoos, body piercings, funky haircuts, or cutoff shorts isn't just uptight; it's a new Jim Crow. Smoking bans consign nicotine addicts to "ghettos" or "concentration camps." Gripes are as common as face cards in a pinochle deck. The race card may turn yours into a winning hand.

But the race card is not a simple matter of opportunism and deception. It is a by-product of deep ideological conflict in our society over how to describe and deal with questions of social justice. When bigotry was openly tolerated, people often announced it or did nothing to conceal it. Therefore, many of the earliest struggles for civil rights aimed at some conspicuous targets: Jim Crow laws, blatantly discriminatory practices, out-and-out race-based exclusion. But today most people try to hide their prejudices. As a result, a lot of time and energy must be spent just trying to determine whether bigotry is in play or not. Everyone involved—accuser and accused alike—has an incentive to lie and dissemble, to downplay or to exaggerate. And as overt prejudice has receded, we've developed new theories of prejudice designed to tease out hidden or repressed motivations and to identify inadvertent forms of wrongful discrimination.

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In the summer of 2006, The Economist magazine informed the hoi polloi that "serious champagne drinkers sip only the prestige cuvées produced by a handful of winemakers." The article quoted Jean-Claude Rouzaud, the former manager of the Louis Roederer house, who opined that a three-hundred-dollar bottle of Roederer's Cristal Champagne was intended for "that 3–5% of consumers who really know wine, and who take the time to taste it correctly." Under the subheading "Unwelcome Attention" (the editor's phrase, not Rouzaud's), the article went on to note what any moderately attentive student of American pop culture already knows: the most conspicuous consumers of high-end champagne—Cristal in particular—are not oenophiles of highly refined sensibilities, but rather "rap artists, whose taste for swigging bubbly in clubs is less a sign of a refined palate than a passion for a 'bling-bling' lifestyle that includes ten-carat diamond studs, chunky gold jewelry, pimped up Caddies and sensuous women." When asked how the venerable house of Roederer feels about this, the new director, Frédéric Rouzaud, took the bait: "What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business."

Days after the publication of the article, hip-hop artist Jay-Z announced a boycott: "It has come to my attention that the managing director of Cristal … views the 'hip-hop' culture as 'unwelcome attention.' I view his comments as racist and will no longer support any of his products."

What are we to make of a boycott—the time-honored tactic of the struggle for basic civil rights—of prestige cuvée champagne? Why, when black unemployment, poverty, rates of incarceration, and life expectancy remain severe and unaddressed problems, did anyone pay a moment's attention to the offhand comment of the representative of a vintner with roots in prerevolutionary France? Jay-Z talked the line of a scrappy civil rights activist, but with the inflections of a jilted socialite: "Jay-Z … will now be serving only Krug and Dom Pérignon," sniffed the press release. When a young, black, self-described "hustler" from Brooklyn seems as precious as a Park Avenue debutante, we've turned some sort of corner in race relations. But where are we headed?

Is M. Rouzaud's wary, though not overtly hostile or contemptuous, reaction to hip-hop—an art form that often explicitly extols a life of violence and crime—racist, as Jay-Z insists? Rouzaud's comments might have reflected racism—we don't want blacks drinking our wine—but they might have reflected concern over the association of the brand with an ostentatious subculture that extols violence and crime. Do we think the reaction would have been much different had, say, the notorious British punk band the Sex Pistols embraced Cristal Champagne during the band's heyday in the 1970s? (Unlikely, I admit.) It would have been fair enough for Jay-Z to boycott Cristal because Rouzaud insulted the hip-hop culture, of which he is a part, but that wouldn't have made headlines or garnered much sympathy. After all, a lot of people, including some prominent blacks, have disparaging things to say about hip-hop. By contrast, racism from the director of a well-known international company is news, and it guarantees the instinctive condemnation of millions of people. Because Rouzaud's statement was subject to multiple interpretations, one had a choice as to whether to frame the insult narrowly, in terms of hip-hop, or broadly, in terms of race. It's not surprising that the personally affronted Jay-Z chose the latter.

Having done so, he triggered a chain of predictable—indeed, reflexive—reactions. Contemporary racial politics make it a virtue to assume the worst when confronted with such ambiguous circumstances. The person who assumes the best of others and offers plausible alternatives to the verdict of racism is typically dismissed as naïve or even complicit in racial injustice. This presumption of guilt leads people to play the race card, and it effectively silences those who would call their bluff.

At the same time, presuming the worst is understandable in a society in which racism persists but is rarely expressed openly. If Rouzaud is a racist, he certainly wouldn't announce it. But he might inadvertently reveal his prejudice in the context of an interview about a bunch of black nouveaux riches who guzzle his finest cuvée as if it were cheap malt liquor. People who are regularly at risk of suffering from concealed racism can't afford to take Pollyanna's perspective. A marked man had better always look for hidden assassins; a black person—marked by race for social contempt—had better always look for hidden bigotry.

A 2006 article in the arts and culture magazine Black Book announced the rise of a "post-racist" culture. The term is too clever by half, but still evocative and compelling. Like "postmodern" or "postcolonial," the prefix in post-racist doesn't suggest the demise of what it modifies—in this case racism. Instead, post" suggests a sort of supernova late stage of racism in which its contradictions and excesses both cancel out and amplify its original functions. The post-racist has absorbed the values of the civil rights movement—she is perfectly comfortable with black authority figures, black classmates, black neighbors. He thinks it's unremarkable that the secretary of state is a black woman. She says that she doesn't really think of her black friends as "black," and she means it. She also freely indulges in the black stereotypes our culture has on offer: hip-hop's image of the black thug, the black pimp, the black drug dealer, the black crack whore, the black hustler. The post-racist is free to be explicitly and crudely bigoted because he does so with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The post-racist parodies racism, but she doesn't exactly repudiate it. Instead, she revels in its excesses with almost a kind of nostalgia, just as the film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery archly mocks the 1960s spy movies and swinging London but also yearns for them with an almost heartbreaking sincerity.

One of the intriguing characteristics of post-racism is that it is practiced by all races on an almost egalitarian basis. A black bartender quoted in the Black Book article quipped, "This is the best time in history to be a black man in America because it's easier than ever to sleep with white women." This crass assessment of racial justice is characteristically post-racist. It manages to say something profoundly humanist (it's a better world today because erotic attachments no longer need observe the color line), but at the same time vaguely racist (black men so obsessively long for sex with white women that they define their quality of life largely by the availability of such opportunities).

Perhaps Jay-Z's exquisitely constructed public image and Rouzaud's reaction to it are examples of post-racism. Jay-Z's image would be incomprehensible without a shared backdrop of racial stereotypes. The hip-hop persona is both a reaction to racist stereotypes and also—let's face it—a performance of them. Given this, Rouzaud's ill-considered comments are all the more ambiguous. Was his apparent distaste for hip-hop culture a reflection of a racist distaste for blacks or a less-objectionable distaste for the antisocial behavior stereotypically attributed to blacks by racists? When we're dealing with such ambiguities, one person's righteous accusation of prejudice will look to another like a cheap shot at playing the race card.

Tomorrow, who were the real racists in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

Richard Thompson Ford is George E. Osborne professor of law at Stanford Law School.