The Race Card: Democracy's Parasite?

It is apparent to just about everyone that George Zimmerman’s trial was heavily involved with questions of race. For many blacks (and more than a few liberal whites), it is a clear sign of racism that Zimmerman was not immediately arrested, charged, and tried. For many conservatives – a group which of course includes many minorities -- the subsequent decision to charge him with murder seems like a clear case of political opportunism by Florida authorities, a play to racial hate panderers like Rev. Al Sharpton, the model for Rev. Bacon in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

I am not going to try to split the difference on this: there is no question in my mind that Zimmerman should have been found not guilty -- indeed, that he should never have been tried.

But I do think it is important for Americans to understand why so much of the black community and many white liberals see the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent decision to not charge Zimmerman as evidence of racism.

Politicians -- specificially, Democratic politicians -- have been playing the race card in American politics for a long time. In the nineteenth century, not only Southern Democrats but even many Northern Democrats played the race card, calling the opposition party “Black Republicans” to emphasize that Republicans were looking out for blacks to the detriment of whites.

This book cover shows how Democrats argued that, with the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, we should next expect black men to be pursuing white women for sex.

Once the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed Congress -- with a significantly higher percentage of Republicans voting “yea” than Democrats -- the Democratic Party did not stop playing the race card. They just changed which race they were trying to inflame to vote irrationally.

Those who wonder why blacks have been so easily swayed to vote Democrat by crude appeals to race have only to look at the nineteenth century, when Democrats used the same approach to get white votes. Democrats play the race card for a reason -- it works, and it works well. In the same way that P.T. Barnum’s famous saying -- “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public” -- says something ugly about popular tastes, the way in which appeals to race always seem to win elections says something ugly about how easy it is to sway people with appeals to the lowest common denominator.

There’s another element to this problem, however: history. America has a really ugly history when it comes to race relations. You don’t have to go back all that many years to find abuses by police and courts that were widespread and commonly accepted as just the way things were. A friend of mine who was in the Air Force was driving across Texas in the early 1960s in a fairly new car -- that alone was sufficient reason for a policeman to pull him over, because a black man driving a nice car was obviously a car thief or a criminal. In those days, most people had only black and white photos with them, and in one of those wallet snapshots, his wife looked white. So he was arrested and spent a bit of time in jail, until he was able to convince them he was married to a very light-skinned black woman.

Nor were these problems strictly Southern. I can remember my shock, in the early 1970s, when a coroner’s inquest in northern Arizona took twenty minutes to decide that a black man found hung had committed suicide. What’s the problem with that? Not only were his feet bound together, but his hands were tied together behind his back.

Now, at this point, some of you are going to start muttering that there is a lot of racism out there now going the other direction -- what are clearly racially motivated attacks by blacks on whites. I agree; there are a lot of young blacks being whipped into mob or individual violence based on race by those who make a living promoting hatred of whites. It is certainly easier to blame whites for what are now largely problems the black community imposes on itself, in much the same way that Democrats into the 1950s found it easier to blame white poverty on blacks in the South or Asians in the West, rather than face the real causes. But the memory of past abuses makes it too easy for the race panderers to keep playing the race card.

Thomas Jefferson made a very depressing observation in Notes on Virginia (1785) about why he did not think it was possible to abolish slavery and have whites and blacks live together in one nation:

Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations;… and many other circumstances will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

I used to look at that and think that Jefferson’s assumptions of black racial inferiority drove that pessimistic assessment, and certainly, that was part of why he came to this dark conclusion. But I increasingly fear that Jefferson correctly identified that the race card is just too tempting a tool for politicians to use in their bid for power. I dearly look forward to the day when each of us is judged by the content of our character, and not the color of our skin. But I am losing faith that the race card can ever be crushed by a democracy.