Slate published excerpts of Professor Richard Thompson Ford’s book, The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, in which 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:
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?).
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…