NPR logo In Defense of Race Cards

In Defense of Race Cards

Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama face off at a Democratic debate this week.

Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama face off at a Democratic presidential debate this week in South Carolina. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

If you were playing, say, pai gow poker in Vegas and you found a table where the dealer showed his cards BEFORE you set your hand, that's the table where you'd wanna put your taw into action. It's always better to know what's on the table than to have to guess what's in the hole. Which is why, for the life of me, I can't understand why people are so darn consternated over Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (and their spouses and supporters) and the various race cards they've been publicly playing of late. Sure, it's petulant and puerile, and we'd be better off if the candidates debated more pertinent issues. But we'd also be better off if the election strife in Kenya got play over Britney's latest shave-my-head-threaten-my-kids meltdown.

It is, however, the real world and so we might as well live in it.

And in the real world, even the most intelligent, high-minded people have racial hang-ups.

The high-minded tend to parse their words, so oftentimes we are left wondering about their intent.

I don't really care to wonder.

I want to know if Clinton really believes that it "took a president" to get blacks their civil rights. I want to know if Obama really thinks that taking money from Indian-American supporters makes Clinton (D-Punjab). What did Andrew Cuomo really mean when he said Obama can't "shuck and jive" his way through a press conference? Does Michelle Obama really think that blacks who don't vote for her husband constitute the slumbering masses?

And even though it was clearly meant in jest, does Obama truly believe the appropriate response to the question of whether Bill Clinton was the first black president resides in "Bill's dancing abilities"?

Not his SAT scores. Not the hours of community service he completes each month. His "dancing abilities."

Harmless comments taken out of context and whipped to a froth in a media cycle? Maybe. But if we're gonna sweat Don Imus or Kelly Tilghman, don't presidential candidates deserve as much of our hot attention?

So as off-topic as it may seem, I'd like to know about the cards they're playing sooner rather than later.

Later being after I cast a vote.



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I think there is a difference between "playing a race card" and saying what one thinks about race. To me, playing a race card entails cynically using race and racism politically, such as when whites use racism to divide the electorate, or when people of color use race as a stand-in for idea -- "if you criticize this idea you are racist." It is quite possible to play a race card, one way and the other, without being racist. No, race cards don't add anything to our elections.

Sent by Andy Davis | 1:49 PM | 1-25-2008

while I am okay with most of your commentary I find it highly offensive to throw in the "bill's dancing" comment. That was about the only way Obama could have answered the question. First off I Like Bill Clinton very much and believe he did alot for the middle class, which includes a significant amount of Blacks. But even with that He is still not a black man and never will be. As sensitive as he is to our plight, he has never had to experience the burden of overt or covert racism being a white male. If Barrack would have come out and said the truth that I am saying he would be vilified by the world, which is unfortunate because he would only be speaking a truth that black people know down to the core of thier being even though it often cannot be expressed in polite society. The other criticisms you mentioned are fair and reasoned and I must admit to wondering what the answer would be as well

Sent by Marcus | 1:59 PM | 1-25-2008

talk about taking comments out of context! the "dancing abilities" crack came at the end of a response that thoughtful, respectful, and not without some open disdain for the fact that the question had even been raised. the humor of the comment only worked because of the preceding, serious answer. now you play the ol' press game of going for the sensational while decrying how everyone goes for the sensational.

god help us

Sent by jazztao | 4:27 PM | 1-25-2008

And even though it was clearly meant in jest, does Obama truly believe the appropriate response to the question of whether Bill Clinton was the first black president resides in "Bill's dancing abilities"?

Not his SAT scores. Not the hours of community service he completes each month. His "dancing abilities."

Good and insightful piece, but you lost me here.

Sent by K. Wall | 4:45 PM | 1-25-2008

These "harmless comments" are important and need to be recognized and discussed. But what would greater media attention do? I see them as symptoms of very deep problems in our culture, problems candidates might fear addressing, and problems which may or may not be productively addressed in the warping context of a presidential election. Yet certainly ignoring these symptoms is not a good option.

Sent by Kaitlin Walker | 5:30 PM | 1-25-2008

you know i never looked at it in that perspective. thanks.

you've got a point.

Sent by veronica | 5:56 PM | 1-25-2008

Speaking of hang-ups that high minded people have, what do SAT scores have to do with being the first "black" president, or with being president at all?

Sent by Aaron Friedman | 9:34 PM | 1-25-2008

BlogMoses: Open Letter to Barack Obama The Challenge

Dear Senator Obama,

I am a former Democrat turned Independent voter living in California and I want believe in an UNITED States of America again. I have been watching this primary season very closely and I am encouraged by the intense energy, interest and participation of young voters, new voters and previously disaffected voters. I attribute this enthusiasm more to your candidacy than I do Senator Clinton's or former Senator Edwards. We have seen this in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and now, South Carolina.

I am not against either of your opponents. I love John Edwards's message about the poor and working families in this country. I would have loved to see him at the top of the ticket in 2004. However, I think about his "fighting" message this election cycle and I wonder, do we want a President to be fighting lobbyists, fighting Republicans, fighting the insurance companies, fighting corporations, fight everyone for 4 years? If he spends all his time fighting all these interests, what will he actually get done? He will need some of these interests to achieve a lot of what he would like to do.

As for the junior Senator from New York, if she is to be the nominee and is somehow able to overcome her high negatives and polarizing persona, will she be able win in states that Senator Kerry lost in 2004? And let's say she does etch out a one state victory, do we really need to start another dynasty in the White House? There were some great things about the 1990s and there were some terrible things about the 1990s, however the country would rather not rehash those battles for another 4 more years. Another Clinton in the White House would mean more fighting with the Republicans who would in turn stall any agenda that she would try to push through further insuring that nothing gets done. And recent events have shown that the Clintons are only concerned about winning at all cost, the Democratic Party, the American people and the country be damned.

Senator Obama I have heard all of your speeches. You talk about MLKs belief in "the fierce urgency of now" in your speech. So here is my challenge to you Senator. In the next debate (your most challenging format) in California on January 31, can you tell America from the heart why you want to be President? Why should Democrats make you the nominee of their party in 2008? What is your vision for the future of this country and how do your policy proposals support that vision?

I believe these are the essential questions to your candidacy. Could you articulate your vision in a clear, concise and compelling way speaking from your heart and not a stump speech like other candidates? If you can, I believe the Democratic Party will follow, and in turn the rest of the country. I feel the country is ready to be united again. There is a fierce hunger for it. Black, White, Latino, Asian, Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Mormon, rich, poor and everyone else in between loves this country and would like to unite under one leader that represents them all whether they agree with them or not. Show the naysayers. Lead us. UNITE US. The country IS ready.



Sent by BlogMoses | 11:23 PM | 1-26-2008

In all the debates and speeches I have seen and heard, I have not really heard either Hilary or Barack play the gender or race "card." I have seen them trying to talk about the issues. It's the MEDIA that has been trying to play this angle for good ratings. The moderators of the debates keep asking the racial and gender questions and the candidates have simply answered them, and answered them well. But I have given up a long time ago on expecting the news to be more interested in reporting the news than glamorizing issues for ratings. I give NPR the credit of coming the closest to real reporting.

Sent by David Williams | 10:47 AM | 1-27-2008

Your comments about the "race card" that was tossed around the political arena are right on track. I too wish people would pay more attention to the real issues, the war, the fact that our veterans coming back from Iraq aren't getting the health care they need. The suicide rate among soldiers and our veterans. I believe voters have already fallen asleep with the robotic candidates stating the same platitudes that have been stated for years. Then the smear campaign to better to become President.

I am a democrat and I don't know who to vote for.

Maybe I will write in Ralph Nadar!!!

Sent by pam lindsay | 1:41 AM | 1-28-2008

Ridley is right. Obama's comment about 'Bill's dancing ability' was in jest. As such it was an artful deflection of this absurd idea that Bill Clinton was the US's 'first black president'. By acknowledging President Clinton's affinity for African Americans, Obama neatly finessed the moment. He granted that Clinton can hang, while subtly signaling that, as an actual black man, he sees Clinton for what he is; a white politician who is uniquely comfortable with black people,even while selling them short, time and again. Obama was making fun of the 'first black president' idea.

Sent by Roderick Spencer | 3:31 AM | 1-28-2008

Who's Electible?

Democrats concerned about regaining the White House to move this country forward may want to reconsider the conventional wisdom as to who is the most electible candidate.

1) In Iowa, with hotly contested caucuses on both sides, Obama not only won by eight points over John Edwards, but garnered more caucusers than the top four Republicans combined. Record turnout on the Democratic side boosted him to a convincing victory, even though the third place candidate, Hillary Clinton, got the numbers of die-hard Democrats out they expected to need to win. Most precincts were flooded, with two to three times as many caucusers as had ever been seen before.

2) In another predominately white state, New Hampshire, Obama lost by just five thousand votes, with most, if not all, of her margin coming from early and absentee ballots cast before Iowa. Again, Independents flocked to Obama, despite having another candidate they greatly admired (and splitting that vote) in John McCain on the other side.

3) Speaking of John McCain: Mark McKinnon, McCain's campaign manager, has twice now pledged publicly not to work for any candidate, including his own, that is running against Obama.

4) In Michigan, where Obama and Edwards withdrew their name from the ballot (due to all candidates pledging not to campaign in states that violated the plan to have four regional small-state primaries and caucuses before the big states came out) and where write-in ballots were not counted, Hillary Clinton failed to win a delegation due to barely edging out uncommitted voters, who came out in the cold to make sure everyone knew she was not their candidate. She lost reliably Democratic Detroit- where Obama had delivered a truth-to-power speech calling for automakers to stop fighting higher fuel efficiency standards- Clinton was crushed by Uncommitted. Democrats cannot win Michigan without Detroit.

5) In Nevada, where yet another record turnout can probably be explained by the fact that their state was caucusing early for the first time, Clinton carried reliably Democratic Las Vegas, but Obama brought new voters in from northern and southern Nevada, traditionally Republican areas, winning a majority of delegates.

6) Now, in South Carolina, Obama won a ten point victory over BOTH of his opponents combined, and a nearly thirty point victory over Hillary Clinton. Again, even with Republicans having a contested election, Obama's 55% of the vote was more than all votes cast in 2004, the previous record for Democratic turnout.

These new voters and party-crossers are coming out and getting involved for the first time in winter cold to support Obama, while Clinton and Edwards are failing to win over even majorities of reliably Democratic partisans. Those voters will join Obama in November, but will the new voters join Clinton? That is doubtful, especially with Bill Clinton continuing to try to portray Obama's crushing victory in South Carolina as a black vote only thing. (He only got two percentage points lower than Clinton among white men, and garnered 25 % of white women's vote in a three-way race. Clinton quickly pointed out that Jesse Jackson had also won South Carolina, deliberately ignoring Obama's strong showing in states with negligible black populations, and the record numbers of new voters Obama brought in, including the new black voters that provided his margin of victory, with older black (and again, reliably Democratic) black voters casting ballots for Clinton.
These latest tactics are certainly alienating a core democratic constituency- as the Detroit vote shows- while bringing no one new to our party. It remains to be seen whether alienated voters would come back, or just sit on their hands or even defect to a McCain candidacy.

Sent by Drew | 9:42 AM | 1-28-2008

A different view of the race card

Race "any people united by common history, language, cultural traits, etc." "of or pertaning to the races of humankind" "any contest or competition, esp. to achieve superiority" (Lexico, 2008a).

Card "something useful in attaining an objective, as a course of action or position of strength, comparable to a high card held in a game: If negotiation fails, we still have another card to play" (Lexico, 2008b).

Whether strategically calculated or naively executed, Bill Clinton's reference to Jesse Jackson wining SC but ultimately loosing the Democratic nomination and Hillary Clinton's statement that a president did more for civil rights than MLK is a race card being played to their potential disadavantage. Do not get me wrong, I actually like the Clintons not to mention the "Family Guy" episode on Bill Clinton but I digress. Obama's defense has been and continues to be an intelligent offense similar to Tiger Wood's "no statement" to Tilghman's remarks which underscores their mental toughness, character, and integrity to elevate above the fray. Hillary can exclaim " I would be the first woman president" as a advocate for change but Obama can not say " I will be the first Black president" even though this fact is obvious. Hence, my point. Some want to say the race card but if you take the definitions above then you will begin to develop a different view of the "race card" as it should be two candidates competing to obtain an objective (Democratic nomination). "Just the facts, mame!"

Lexico. 2008a. Race. Retrieved January 28, 2008 from

Lexico. 2008b. Card. Retrieved January 28, 2008 from

Sent by Plato Smith | 12:48 PM | 1-28-2008

Why is it always the race-card? I hate that expression. Being a black female, I have heard that term often. Rarely have I heard the term, sex-card. Perhaps that would reference something of a more provocative nature. In any case, it is not a card, it is a reality. What does the term race-card really mean? I hate that expression. Being a black female, I have heard that term often. I have not heard the term, sex-card. Perhaps that would reference something of a more provocative nature. In any case, it is not a card, it is a reality. I wear my race on my skin everywhere I go, and the treatment I receive is always partially effected by my race -- just as your clothes, hair, and general appearance effects first, second and on-going impressions. Can we stop calling it a race-card? It is a race reality. Good or bad, that is just how it is.

Sent by Keya Hammond | 1:05 PM | 1-28-2008

I agree with you. Certain comments made by certain politicians have shown me their "true colors" and it's definitely made up my mind about which way I'll vote. However, I detect some degree of sympathy towards K. Tilghman and Don Imust-two people who deserve RAKING over the coals (literally and figuratively)!

Sent by Pree | 3:27 PM | 1-28-2008

I think it was Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison who dubbed Clinton the First Brother based on his single-parent upbringing, sexual promiscuity, affinity for fast food, and saxophone playing, however, in reality, I think his mother remarried when he was three, his philandering got him impeached, his lousy eating habits got him a heart attack, and he could peel paint with that saxophone.

I think Ms. Morrison's internalization of white paternalism might be what Norman Kelley meant by a "Massa complex." You notice is in comparing her and Cornel West's respective interpretations of Ahab in Moby-Dick. While Dr. West echoes the C.L.R. James "factory ship" approach with Ahab as a nihilistic captain of industry leading a multiracial crew to their doom with a fetish of whiteness dangling before him, Ms. Morrison sees Ahab in heroic terms, almost like a John Brown figure, with the whale representing "white racial ideology" and Ahab "the only white male American heroic enough to try to slay the monster that was devouring the world as he knew it."

In the music department Clinton's probably no worse than Mike Huckabee who doesn't so much play the bass as hold the bass. If you watch his right hand, it has no relationship to the tempo of the song the band is playing and he has the least energetic style of plucking I've ever seen. His technique reminds me of the yellow pages ad.

It figures that Huckabee would like Hendrix, who, according to a character in an Adam Mansbach novel, was "black but hippied out and fronting white bands, too extraterrestrial to be black militant."

Sent by Dave | 1:04 AM | 1-29-2008

personally, watching it from a distance (i am overseas) the entire supposed hubbub is much ado about nothing...for heaven's sakes, this is about who will run as the Democratic candidate, not about who the media wishes to crown as "front runner" on any given day..watching the news, one would think a few asides, a couple of jokes, etc were somehow akin to racism or "playing a race card" it is simply politics...and myself, i am more turned off by Baracks's feigning innocence than any comments made by Hillary or Bill Clinton. Any Democratoc candidate will get my vote as the disaster of the Reagan legacy is finally coming to fruition.

Sent by andrew boller | 2:14 AM | 1-29-2008

I think we should be more worried about the fact that these politicians are using race in an attempt to collect votes than worrying about what these little race jabs are. obviously a politician isn't going to do something unless they think it will garner votes. if politicians think that jabbing at race and gender will get them votes, then something is wrong with the voters, not the politicians.

Sent by Nate | 7:47 AM | 1-29-2008

When you talked about "showing your cards" early, I thought you were going in another direction.

Like, say I'm a black male in my early 30s from suburban Atlanta. Name 20 things about me politically. I'm sure you, or anyone, could do so easily, and, in truth, you'd be right about 16 or 17 of them. Now, say I'm a white woman in my early 30s from suburban Atlanta. How many things could you (or anyone) know for CERTAIN about my political stances? Probalby not 20, and they'd be wild stabs in the dark. So, in essence, Obama's "cards" are always face-up to his audience.

It's that "perceived blackness" that Obama must simultaneously maintain (for votes) and fight against (for the same reason). While certainly an African-American, Obama is no more "black" (that is, he doesn't have a direct familial line to American slavery [at least not on the "slave" side]) than Bill Clinton. But the truth is that when people see him across a room or across a street, they think those same 20 things about him that they do about me. They may agree with these things or disagree, but it'll probably take a lot more than a bunch of swiftboaters and blitz ads to convince them otherwise.

So why do people need to say these things out loud? Is it any more fair, or unfair, that he won one political race because of his perceived race, over the MANY he's probably lost for the same reason? Either way, it probably should go WITHOUT saying.

Anyway, I like Obama and Clinton and, for that matter, Edwards. And somebody's got to run and win. I always say to blame the strategists and speechwriters. The poor candidates thmeselves deserve only our pity.

Sent by Leo H. | 3:45 PM | 2-3-2008

There's enough change to go around the whole table. What I don't like about Obama is the change apparently is still assigned to only part of the population. He disrespects Rev. Wright in some silly excuse of "that's just poor Uncle Wright, doesn't know any better, can't expect more from him than this". I mean, come on. I personally, believe Obama's speech was "damage control". I think his speech was taylored for the audience he was addressing, to achieve a desired out come. But I don't think he really believes all of the speech himself. I base this on his own responding to Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton's, criticism of his campaign, using the notion, that the message of unity, and change, will sweep up the Republicans in the Senate and Congress, and get them to go along with whatever they have opposed in the past. Obama knows this based on his attempt at making it manditory for Nuclear Power Plants to notify surrounding homes, when a radio active leak occurs, so they might know not to drink their well water. Seems like a slam dunk issue. What happened? Obama didn't "work it" through the media. He hit a brick wall in special interests and with Republican oppositon, rewrote the bill making it "voluntary" (should we have voluntary sex offender registries?), and on top of that, accepted $227,000 from Exelon (the Nuclear Power Plant), and hired David Axelrod as their campaign supervisor, who ALSO is a consultant for EXELON!
My point is Obama KNEW what Clinton meant. What did Mr. Unity, Mr. Change do? His campaign spokes person released this comment (There's a groundswell of reaction to these comments, and not just these latest comments but really a pattern, or a series of comments that we've heard for several months) she said "Folks are beginning to wonder: Is this really an isolated situation, or is there something bigger behind all of this" And Obama responded immediately to the Clinton interview, saying she had offended people who believed she had diminished King's role (Politico, Ben Smith)
~"...Senator Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark, about King and Lyndon Johnson,...she, I think, offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King's role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act." Obama (Politico, Ben Smith).
I'm sorry, Obama is the one who started the race baiting, and NEVER even answered the point behind her question, How IS he going to magically use speech to get items, like reporting of radioactive waste in ground water so Mom's know not to mix their baby formula with it, past the forces that apparently didn't react will amazement and an attitude of change before?
Obama has demonstrated to me, that he is an opportunist, he has ochestrated his whole campaign to pander to what American's want in a leader. I don't believe he truly beleives in his platform, and his handling of the Hillary Martin Luther King Jr. comment, is just a great example of how when a white person says something benign, IF someone with Rev. Wright's mentality gets ahold of it, they will twist is and use black rage, to scream fire in a theater. I close, with a quote from Obama's book:
Black politicians discovered what white politicians had known for a very long time: that race-baiting could make up for a host of limitations. Younger leaders, eager to make a name for themselves, upped the ante, peddling conspiracy theories all over tow -the Koreans were funding the Klan, Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with AIDS. It was a shortcut to fame, if not always fortune; like sex or violence on TV, black rage always found a ready market.
Source: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, p.186 Aug 1, 1996
(Earl Ofari Hutchinson from the Huffinton Post has an excellent article on this.

Sent by Janet C. | 1:22 PM | 3-20-2008