The Race Card

Was It Really a High-Tech Lynching?
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Jan. 20 2008 7:16 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 argues that sometimes what people call racism is really just a political struggle or ideological conflict. He sets the stage with the 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, in an effort to determine whether and in which ways his detractors were truly racists.

Almost all Americans agree that racism is wrong. Many believe that it remains a serious problem that affects many people on a regular basis. But a lot of people also worry that the charge of racism can be abused. We can all think of examples: Tawana Brawley's claimed assault seemed to have been a staged hoax. Michael Jackson—a musician who enjoyed the most lucrative career in the history of recorded music—teamed up with Brawley's former handler, Al Sharpton, to accuse his recording label, Sony Music, of a "racist conspiracy" to undermine his popularity after sales of his disappointing latest album are, well, disappointing. The multimillionaire—who, through untold plastic surgeries, has achieved the Aryan phenotype of Snow White— declared fearlessly, "When you fight for me, you're fighting for all black people, dead and alive." (That rumbling you hear is the sound of thousands of former slaves, sharecroppers, and victims of Jim Crow turning in their graves.) Prince, a musician whose contract was not quite as good as Michael Jackson's but still extraordinarily generous, complained that he was a "slave" to his record label (years later Prince made a deal with Jackson's old label, Sony, apparently unafraid of the racist conspiracy). Clarence Thomas, when charges of sex harassment surfaced during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court of the United States, compared his critics to a lynch mob. And of course there's O. J. Simpson. We all know what happened with O. J. Simpson (don't we?).

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The Race Card will examine the prevalence of dubious and questionable accusations of racism and other types of bias. I will argue that the social and legal meaning of "racism" is in a state of crisis: The term now has no single clear and agreed-upon meaning. As a result, it is available to describe an increasingly wide range of disparate policies, attitudes, decisions, and social phenomena. This leads to disagreement and confusion. Self-serving individuals, rabble-rousers, and political hacks use accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of "bias" tactically, in order to advance their own ends. And people of goodwill may make sincere claims that strike others as obviously wrongheaded.

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The year 1991 marked the end of an era in American civil rights. Thurgood Marshall—the first black Supreme Court justice, the lead attorney for the NAACP in the historic racial desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education—announced his intention to retire from the bench. Immediately the speculation and maneuvering concerning Marshall's replacement began. It was widely expected that another African-American would be—indeed, would have to be—appointed. Liberals and civil rights groups began a predictable campaign directed at the Republican president—George H. W. Bush—who would nominate Marshall's successor. It was crucial, they insisted, that the nation's highest court include a person of color. The Bush administration would demonstrate the racial insensitivity—indeed bigotry—that its enemies had long suspected if it appointed a white person to fill this vacancy. Partisan politics and ideological litmus tests surely should be put aside in this instance. Marshall's vacancy should be filled by a person who could understand and express the unique experience of racial minorities in this country.

Beltway conservatives must have bristled at this bind. The liberals were using a blatant racial quota—something conservatives vehemently opposed on principle—to push the president to a more liberal nominee. Many of the "New Right" became conservatives in reaction to this kind of identity politics. They had seen their neighborhood schools forcibly integrated through racial busing imposed by liberal judges. They felt that their cherished family alma maters had succumbed to the cheap thrills of radical chic and caved in to the pressures of black nationalist mau-mauing and feminist hectoring. "Disadvantaged minorities" displaced their sons in the entering classes of Ivy League universities; militant feminists demanded integration, disrupting the comfortable esprit de corps of campus men's clubs. The traditional liberal arts curriculum had been watered down with overtly political ethnic and feminist authors, a concession to a misguided and trendy pluralism. The grande dame of classical education—Western Civilization—had been raped by radicals and begat such bastardizations as "World Civilizations" and "Cultures, Ideas, and Values." In the newly hyper-liberal colleges, they had been forced to sit through what they felt were self righteous screeds about "white male oppression," and they were browbeaten by pious professors and students alike, each competing to be more sensitive and tolerant than thou.

And were the people who got into college through race and gender quotas grateful to be there? Hardly. Instead, they harangued and harassed, complained and cajoled for ethnic studies, feminist studies, special theme houses, "sensitivity" days, mandatory tolerance workshops. They held marches, sit-ins, and rallies for every conceivable left-wing cause.

The Senate confirmation hearings began as a duller than average legal theory symposium involving issues such as "fidelity to the Constitution" and the meaning of "penumbral rights." After Hill's accusations they morphed into a Jerry Springer episode that had put on airs. The nation witnessed a parade of disgruntled former coworkers, jilted ex-lovers, and other "character witnesses" testifying to the integrity or duplicity of Thomas and Hill. The Clarence 'n Anita Show offered the viewing public that most comfortable scene of American pop theater, wherein the vain and cocky black man gets taken down a notch or two  by the headstrong black woman. Hill played a demure Sapphire Stevens to Thomas's somber Amos Jones, with EEOC colleague and Thomas supporter John Doggett making a cameo as Kingfish Stevens.

The daytime drama came to a head when a beleaguered Thomas described the hearings as a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks." Although race had thus far served as a silent inoculation against critique, here it was deployed openly as a full-strength antibiotic. Thomas sought to link his struggle to sit on the highest Court in the United States to the struggles of African Americans to avoid physical mutilation, torture, and death. He implicitly evoked the experience of blacks such as Emmett Till, a young black man from Chicago who was tortured and killed by whites after teasing a white woman in Mississippi. He compared milquetoast Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to an angry mob armed with firearms and strong rope.

Irony notwithstanding, it's possible that race did play a role in validating Hill's accusations.  These charges had an ugly racial overtone, intended or not: the black man as sexual predator. That's how many of Thomas's colleagues and much of the nation would receive them. The people who advanced the charges and pressed the issue had to have known this. These charges were probably more believable to many people and certainly much more damaging psychologically to Thomas because of his race. Mightn't an embattled Thomas reasonably have suspected that part of the reason so many believed her and not him, part of the reason her story, tarnished by the passage of time, gained the luster of plausibility and for many the gleam of Truth, was that her account confirmed one of the most pernicious of racial stereotypes?

Tomorrow, hip-hop artist Jay-Z goes after the makers of Cristal champagne.

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

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