Mark Sawyer: Obama Has No 'Race Card' To Play : News & Views "Barack Obama has no 'race card' to play, but John McCain sure does," says Marc Q. Sawyer.
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Mark Sawyer: Obama Has No 'Race Card' To Play

Political Positions

Earlier this week, presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Barack Obama was "playing the race card," when the Illinois senator warned an audience that his Republican rivals would try to scare Americans against voting for him.

Mark Q. Sawyer heard that charge and offers this piece, titled "Barack Obama Has No 'Race Card' to Play, But John McCain Sure Does."

Sawyer is director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics and the author of Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba.

What is "the race card" anyway? It appeared in the context of the O.J. Simpson trial when Robert Shapiro, O.J.'s lawyer, worried that by doing his job as O.J. Simpson's attorney had lost his whiteness card.

Shapiro said, "'Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.'" That phrase was echoed as a defense by McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis, in justifying the McCain's campaign likening Barack Obama — a former state senator, editor of the Harvard Law Review, community organizer and sitting U.S. Senator — to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. The two, of course, are most known for partying, sex tapes, eschewing underwear, and flights of fancy with drunk driving, drug use, jail and child neglect.

The New York Times has accurately pointed out the connection with the Simpson trial and the irony of McCain's use of it. Now we have pundits arguing whether the "race card" was played or not, without anyone have a clear idea of what a "race card" is — if it exists at all. But I think I can help here.

Ostensibly "the race card" is some proverbial "get out of jail free card" in the context of O.J. — or in the minds of some whites now — extended to the point of any charge of racism, which places African Americans, or in this case an African-American candidate, beyond reproach, outside of legitimate criticism. It is like the Joker in a game of Joker's Wild or a trump card that solves all black problems and blunts legitimate criticism. It is supposedly a cross and garlic that Obama, and perhaps all African Americans, carry to ward of not evil white vampires but reasonable white people and criticism.

The fact is there is no such thing as a race card in the sense mentioned above in political campaigns. Whenever race is a topic of debate in the campaign it is almost always a net negative for Obama, no matter how gracefully he handles it. His statement was, in fact, carefully worded to try to inoculate himself from being pounded by coded racial language and not so coded racial language on Fox News and the Internet (we have all seen the Obama family tree e-mails, etc.).

Obama said, "Nobody thinks that Bush and McCain have a real answer to the challenges we face. So what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. ... You know, he's not patriotic enough, he's got a funny name, you know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."

Obama, in this statement, is gingerly trying to point out that his different appearance and the fact he is "different" in terms of his name and his racial background may make some uneasy and they may trade on it. But political scientists who follow black politicians have long talked about what some call a "de-racialized campaign." The idea is simply this: If black candidates need to get white voters, explicitly appealing to race is a losing strategy for a black candidate period, full stop.

Even talking about race in the campaign is generally a net negative for the black candidate. We saw this with Clinton. But how can we understand McCain's strategy?
Well, there is some research by political scientist Tali Mendelberg in her book titled, The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages and the Norm of Equality.

Mendelberg reveals that when white candidates explicitly refer to race in campaigns and make explicit appeals they lose support because there is ostensibly a norm of following some notion of racial equality.

However, Mendelberg also shows that implicit messages have a real effect. Using subtle language that cues race in the minds voters can be quite effective. Pictures of black criminals, Clinton's 3AM commercial advertisement, the arrogance attack, questioning patriotism, and from Karl Rover 'trash talking,' followed by fears of miscegenation (Paris and Britney) are all implicit appeals.

They conjure images of either African-American stereotypes or fears about African Americans. This week, McCain also came out against affirmative action, an issue which though it has substantial gender content is entirely understood as a race issue and generally in black/white terms.

Thus, the "race card" reference is also a way to sneak an explicit appeal and to also suggest and implicit appeal. It reminds voters of O.J. Simpson, racism, and the fact that Barack Obama is black. It also suggests that McCain is somehow the unfair victim of an "explicit" racial appeal by Barack Obama. It is a completely dishonest but a master pivot.

Barack Obama has difficulty defending himself from racial attacks because as long as they are either subtle or come from the nether reaches of the Internet or from Fox News but far from McCain himself, McCain pays no price for these attacks. McCain himself becomes the "victim" of the race card and simultaneously injects race into the campaign without ostensibly having to pay the cost of doing so.

Thus, the fact is, if there is a race card, and it in the context of political campaigns works against black candidates and John McCain's campaign is playing it — affirmative action, "Pop-tarts," arrogant, unpatriotic (code for un-American) and then the 'race card' accusation. Everyone knows that part of both Barack Obama's handicap and appeal is that he is the first African American candidate. He has to address that gingerly and defend from all manner of attacks, which allows for a skillful distraction by the McCain campaign.

The truth is, of course, race still matters for some voters and in different and complicated ways. The even sadder truth is, that following the Clinton campaign, McCain is turning Obama's need to craft a defense against racial attacks into an offense.

McCain has to keep the discussion in the campaign on issues that are "wins" for him — national security, terrorism, and of course, race. Following Obama's attempt to inoculate himself from the national security charge during his trip abroad and pivot toward his winning issue, the economy, McCain has used race to distract attention and make the debate one he may not be able to win morally but that he will win the deep recesses in the minds of many voters.

Obama was spot on, and if he had not tried to defend himself in this fashion they would have used some other means of injecting it. The question is will the voters facing a flagging economy be distracted by these appeals to the deep and dark mostly unconscious fears as Obama said? Or will McCain have to find answers for real problems Americans face?

— Mark Q. Sawyer

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