What exactly is "the race card"? The term usually pops out when a non-white person is accused of "playing" this card (rather than "giving" a greeting card) by claiming that something negative happened because of racism. The accuser in such cases is usually a white person, and the accuser uses the term to express doubt about the validity of the non-white person's claims. A further implication is that playing this card is unfair. The extended metaphor at work here is a card game, and the implications are that racial minorities have an extra card in their hand, that whites don't have such a card, and thus that whites don't play it.
When black leaders Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Al Sharpton ran for president, one reason they didn't get very far is because they are largely perceived (whether fairly or not) as habitual players of the race card. In contrast, Barack Obama is largely seen as a black candidate who "transcends" race, in large part, so the perception goes, because he does not play the race card. Thus, because Obama distances himself from overt discussion of African American issues (and leaders, and audiences), he is perceived as more fair-minded on such issues than are Jackson and Sharpton, who are considered by many whites biased and even paranoid.
As author and lecturer Tim Wise further explains,
white folks have been quick to accuse blacks . . . of playing the race card, as if their conclusions have been reached not because of careful consideration of the facts as they see them, but rather, because of some irrational (even borderline paranoid) tendency to see racism everywhere. So too, discussions over immigration, "terrorist" profiling, and Katrina and its aftermath, often turn on issues of race, and so give rise to the charge that as regards these subjects, people of color are "overreacting" when they allege racism in one or another circumstance.As I pointed out in an earlier post ("explain away racist incidents"), whites often imply that they know more about what it is to live as a non-white person than non-white people themselves do. Derogatory charges of "playing the race card" are often another instance of this tendency.
However, an irony here is that whites have race cards of their own, and they do often play them. Indeed, as Wise goes on to explain in his article, this common white response--the denial of non-white interpretations of reality--is itself the playing of a card, a move that Wise calls the "denial card." To continue with the extended metaphor of a card game, if the first card, played by minorities, is perceived as a "race card," then this white denial card played in response is a race card too (it's one of several common instances of "white denial" that Wise describes).
Actually, there are many other circumstances in which whites commonly play a race card. In most cases, though, they don't seem to realize that they're doing so (so really, it's somewhat difficult to blame them for doing so). When they step to the curb of a busy street, for example, and raise a hand to hail a taxi, they expect empty taxis to stop for them. And if any empty taxis don't stop, they rarely if ever think that those taxis didn't stop because of their own skin color. But such is not the case, of course, for those who wear, say, black skin. As so many who wear it have pointed out, even if their black skin is mostly encased in very expensive, "professional" clothing, it can be difficult to get a taxi to pick them up.
When the white passenger steps to the curb and raises her hand, it's as if that hand has a card in it, a card that bears the word "white."
Th card-playing metaphor could be applied to many other common instances in which white skin invites good service, opens doors, and eases access. Surely, since there are so many ways in which white people hold and play race cards, whether consciously played or not, common usage of the term "to play the race card" should be extended to both its white and non-white players.