'Playing the Race Card' Is a Risky Political Ploy

Memo to politicians looking to "play the race card": Use it at your own risk.

Critics were accusing former President Jimmy Carter of race-baiting on Wednesday after he called South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst an act "based in racism." It's a strategy that has often backfired among politicians who tap race to score points.

Former President Bill Clinton was accused of playing the race card in 2008 when he compared presidential candidate Barack Obama's strong showing in the South Carolina primary to that of another black politician -- the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who went on to lose his bid for the White House in 1984 and 1988. Clinton vehemently denied the charge -- and fired back with an accusation that the Obama campaign kept a memo in which they said they had planned to use the race card.

For Clinton, the commentary was a political debacle, analysts say.

"There's no question it hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "The interpretation was that he was trying to dismiss Obama as another Jesse Jackson," he said, adding that black voters comprised 40 to 50 percent of South Carolina's primary electorate.

Since Obama's election, a number of politicians have used race to dismiss criticisms of the nation's first black president.

New York Rep. Charles Rangel was among the first to claim that bias and prejudice are the driving forces behind opposition to Obama's health care reform proposals. Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, compared the battle over health care to the fight for civil rights: 

"Why do we have to wait for the right to vote? Why can't we get what God has given us? That is the right to live as human beings and not negotiate with white Southerners and not count the votes," Rangel said.

New York Gov. David Paterson injected race when he said in an Aug. 29 radio interview that the media have exploited racial stereotypes in covering him and other black elected officials. 

"We're not in the post-racial period," Paterson said in the interview. "The reality is the next victim on the list -- and you can see it coming -- is President Barack Obama, who did nothing more than trying to reform a health care system."

Sabato said politicians should not back down from their criticism of the president's policies because they fear being called racist, but they must handle issues of race prudently.

"You cannot stifle criticism simply because the president is African-American. That is racist too," he said. 

"But you have to be sensitive to race. You must be careful with the language and images you project," he said, citing some signs held by Tea Party protesters at Saturday's march in Washington that critics say were racist depictions of Obama.

Other examples of individuals playing the race card to criticize political decisions include Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, who defended Sen. Roland Burris' appointment to Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat last year by asking reporters not to "hang or lynch" Burris during a press conference.

Critics charged Rush with carefully selecting his words to exploit longstanding prejudice and discrimination against blacks in his bid to see former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's appointee seated.

In 2006, Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney was accused of playing the race card when she claimed she was the victim of racial profiling after she was accused of striking a Capitol Hill police officer with her fist at a security checkpoint. McKinney later expressed regret for the incident, but did not apologize to the officer who had stopped her for bypassing a metal detector while not wearing her congressional lapel pin.

Charges of race-baiting are not unique to Democrats, however. A number of Republicans have been charged with trying to exploit racial differences -- some in subtle, calculating ways.

One is Sen. Trent Lott, who resigned as Senate majority leader in 2002 after he praised South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond on Thurmond's 100th birthday. Lott, R-Miss., paid tribute to Thurmond by saying the country would be a better place if the former Dixiecrat presidential candidate had been elected president in 1948. Lott resigned from the leadership post after an uproar led to his appearance on Black Entertainment Television, where he insisted he wasn't referring to Thurmond's segregationist platform.

Former President George H.W. Bush came under fire in 1988 for allegedly stoking racial fears among whites by running a campaign ad with images of Willie Horton -- a convicted murderer furloughed from prison under a program backed by Bush's Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Former President Ronald Reagan praised the advantages of states' rights when he launched his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss. -- a city where civil right activists were the victims of violent acts perpetrated by racist whites in 1964. Critics charged Reagan, who went on to win the election, with using the location to suggest an opposition to the Civil Rights Act.

Sabato said that Reagan -- who backed civil rights opponent Barry Goldwater in 1964 -- strategically used a "wedge" issue to win over voters in the South.  "Campaigning and governing are two different things," he said.