Playing the Caucasian Card

In her “The Last Word” column at Newsweek this week Anna Quindlen gave us a new and useful concept to describe what many whites do—the “Caucasian card” (H/T Jose Cobas). When African Americans object to racist framing, antiblack commentary, or antiblack practices, whites accuse them of “playing the race card.” This is a white-framed, whitewashed phrase designed to deflect objections to everyday racism. It was doubtless invented by whites for that purpose. (Can anyone tell me its first use?) (photo: kevinthoule)

Quindlen cites the way that African Americans carry a heavy load of racial hostility and discrimination on their shoulders:

When one of the white guys blows an account, the office line is that he’s a loser. But when a black guy does it, it means that they—that’s the all-purpose “they,” sometimes used interchangeably with “those people”—don’t seem to be able to close the deal.

This burden of everyday racism makes a black person’s life quite different from that of a white person. Somehow most whites assume their lives are the same. They assert that blacks have equal opportunities compared to whites–in education, employment, housing or health care.

She later notes that Senator McCain justifiably likes to cite his long trials in a Viet Cong prison with it torture of a physical and psychological kind for five years. That, he and his supporters plausibly assert, “builds character.” But they forget or intentionally ignore the huge burden of contending with white hostility and discrimination that black men and women face (as well as other Americans of color). They face it for lifetimes, for far more than five years. This heavy burden often involves physical and psychological torture of its own kind. This should be fully recognized by the white media and voters, but is not.

Quindlen then comments on the McCain campaign’s reaction to Senator Obama’s recent and reasonable commentary on being viewed by many (whites) as not looking like other presidents on U.S. money and as being portrayed by McCain supporters and others as somehow foreign and “other.”

The man is black. His candidacy is indivisible from that fact, given the history and pathology of this country.… The suggestion of [his doing] something untoward was pandering to stereotypes and fear. Senator McCain was playing the Caucasian card.

She nails it this time. Whites invented the racist system of this country and have maintained that system, with great white privileges, since the 1600s. They have “played the white card” in every era. They played it in the abolitionist era of the 1850s-1860s, and they played it in the civil rights era of the 1950s-1960s. With no sense of irony, privileged whites (coming from what one blogger bobbosphere calls the “deal”) still play that white card today when they regularly accuse African Americans who critique the racist system and try to bring it down as “playing the race card” and being unfair to our “really democratic” system.


  1. Fantastic post. This is a keeper. It really reminds of DuBois’ double consciousness, the duality of being both black and American. Despite the eradication of Jim Crow a large majority of blacks still feel that they must doubly prove themselves at every occasion to overcome the exclusivity of white privilege. The stress adds up, leading to bitterness and resentment.

  2. Aaron P.

    I love it! Playing the Caucasian card is a wonderful way of re-framing the disgusting notion of “playing the race card.”
    The first time I remember the term being used was during the OJ Simpson trial, when OJ’s claims of white racism in the LA police department were framed by the media (who instantly found him guilty) as little more then an attempt to get away with murder. I haven’t read it, but interested individuals might want to check out “Playing the Race Card: Exposing White Power and Privilege” by George Jerry Sefa Dei and Nisha Karumanchery-Luik (2004).

  3. Joe

    Thanks for the references. The term does seem to have been a white creation. It would be interesting to pin it down even more in Britain or the US, to the first person in media or politics to use it publicly. Card metaphors do seem common, more generally.

  4. Seattle in Texas

    Not to sway the discussion off topic too far, I read the following quote in this article (which many may have already read…but will re-attach here anyway):

    And he criticized Obama and former Sen. John Edwards for “playing the populism card, the idea that rich are bad, poor are good, the nobility of America lies in the poor. I think that’s a losing general election argument; I think it’s a losing argument, period.”

    It gets at a somewhat different “card” metaphor and the suggestion that card metaphors being rather common… In terms of the article, I guess I will say I personally think Obama’s playing hardball…. But back to the main post above, it is definitely interesting.

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