Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
May 30, 2014

What does the phrase ‘play the race card’ mean?

Highly charged term has become ubiquitous

A regular feature that decodes popular political phrases and words.
“They’re playing the race card.” It has become a ubiquitous if highly charged phrase in our public arguments. Where did it come from?
Where we’re hearing it:

“Playing the race card” describes an incident where race is used disingenuously to shift blame, win an argument or silence an accuser or opponent. Usually when someone is accused of playing the race card, they are being accused of dishonestly invoking racism.

In a legal battle, playing the race card means blaming societal or individual racism as a counter-punch to a charge.

In politics, someone is accused of playing the race card when they allegedly use a charge of racism dishonestly to undermine a critic or to avoid responsibility for something. For example, after Attorney General Eric Holder once said that President Obama’s race was a factor in GOP attacks on him, Sean Hannity, the Fox News talk show host said, “I am sick and tired of your friends and your party playing this B.S. race card. It is mean. It is evil. It is divisive. And it is slanderous.”

The advocacy group Sunlight Foundation has a high-tech way of monitoring the ways politicians use words. “Race card,” it seems, gets almost equal usage by both the right and the left—either used in accusation or a defense. But the three top users were Republicans.

Where did it come from?

Well, this is a problem: there is no clear path to the invention of the phrase.

Obviously, the phrase invokes a game of cards.  The race card is a trump card – play it and the game is over. There is no rebuttal.

In 1863, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the London magazine Punch published a cartoon of the president captioned, “Abe Lincoln’s Last Card.” The drawing showed a diabolical Lincoln playing a card game and slamming a last card, an Ace of Spades in the form of a black man’s head, down on a tub of gunpowder.

The phrase became commonplace during the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 trial for the murder of his wife Nicole Brown.  Simpson blamed his predicament on racism and several newspapers used the phrase “playing the race card” to describe his tactics. And many believe those tactics are what got him acquitted.

What does it really mean?

There are a couple points to keep in mind when you encounter the phrase and need to decode it:

  1. The classic play of the race card uses a bogus charge of racism to avoid blame or garner sympathy.
  2. The classic accusation that one is playing the race card is an accusation of phoniness and dishonesty.
  3. The phony accusation of race-card-play seeks to undermine or mock a real issue – a real discussion of race or a real instance of bias, racism or broader, more invisible prejudice.
  4. Some accusations of race-card-play are themselves racist.

As a general reminder, playing with race cards is a risky game.