The race card -- the accusation of racism -- is back on the table again. Like the gender card, it is being played too often.
The Bush administration has filed a legal brief expressing opposition to the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies, which are the subject of a Supreme Court challenge.
One of the policies under review ranks undergraduate applicants on a 150-point scale, with a 20-point advantage being awarded to minorities. A white applicant who scores 19 points higher than a minority candidate in all categories but race could -- on the basis of skin color alone -- be refused admission. In Bush's view, "At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students, based solely on their race."
(Of course, women also benefit from many affirmative action programs based solely on their gender.)
Predictably, Bush has been accused of racism. Luke Massie, a national organizer with the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration by Any Means Necessary, claims that Bush is "attempting to perpetrate a racist fraud." Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, accuses Bush of using "'code words' designed to stir up opposition to affirmative action programs among white voters". Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., lumps Bush's position in with the recent Trent Lott scandal and remarks, "That's a lot of negative racial response all at one time."
Meanwhile, a press release from the National Organization for Women alleges that Yale accepted Bush as a student only because he was a favored son among "overwhelmingly white Yale graduates."
It is a dangerous game to slap the race card down as though it were a counter argument.
Too many people now believe the card is being dealt off the bottom of the deck. People are beginning to view all accusations of racism, even legitimate ones, with an increased cynicism because the accusation is too often used as a smear to choke off real discussion. The race card has been cynically played in events ranging from the O.J. Simpson trial to revelations about Jesse Jackson's prying of money from corporations who feared having the R word used against them.
Skepticism about the gender card -- the accusation of sexual discrimination -- runs no less deep.
The skepticism is occurring person-by-person. Many people of good will agree with Bush: diversity is a noble goal that should not be pursued through de facto quota systems. Like me, these people know they are not racists or misogynists. They simply disagree. And they are intelligent enough to also know that those who call them racists without cause are probably doing the same to others.
A tragic consequence is that real victims of racism are more likely to be dismissed.
Racial tension in our society seems to be growing, not decreasing, despite almost four decades of affirmative action. One reason is that some people are playing the race card in order to exploit racial division.
Consider the "James Byrd Jr." ad from the 2000 presidential campaign. A black man, Byrd was dragged to death in Texas in 1998. In an ad commenting upon Bush's refusal to support stronger hate-crime laws, Byrd's daughter speaks over the image of a lynching.
She says, "On June 7, 1998 my father was dragged three miles behind a truck until his life was taken from him, all because he was black. So when Gov. George W. Bush refused to support hate-crimes legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again."
What purpose was served by likening then-presidential candidate Bush to brutal racial murderers? Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman managed to racially smear their opponent. In doing so, they didn't win the election but they did increase racial tension.
Hard working, lower and middle class whites bristle at being blamed for injustices such as slavery, which happened before their parents or grandparents were born. (My ancestors were starving in Ireland at the time.) White parents resent being taxed for state universities at which their children's applications are rated 20 points lower than minorities' because of skin color. It is reasonable for blacks to object to such treatment: it is reasonable for whites to do so as well.
Other voices of anger are terrifying, not merely to minorities but to every person who values civil society.
Advocates of affirmative action who wield the term "racist" like a weapon give support to such extremism. They re-enforce the claim that there is a bitter racial divide in the United States that cannot be healed. They lend credence to the belief that reason and fairness cannot bring the races together. Those who play the race card silence the voices of moderation, setting the stage for extremists to be heard.
The race and gender cards are an indication of moral and intellectual bankruptcy. They should be thrown out of the deck.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.