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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Caucasian Card

It can be tough being black in America. But the tough stuff builds character. Maybe that's why Barack Obama got this far this fast.

Anna Quindlen

Much of America's political conversation is couched in code. And so it was that recently the McCain campaign accused Barack Obama of playing the "race card," two four-letter words that, taken together, trail a wealth of innuendo like a comet's tail.

Using the term "race card" as a pejorative is almost always meant to promulgate the big lie that takes hold everywhere from the workplace to the classroom: that black men and women commonly use race as a bludgeon and an excuse, and that they will always blame failures or disagreements on racism.

This is belied by objective reality. To hear tell, you would believe that the world is chockablock with minority lawyers, teachers, construction workers and police officers who spend all their time complaining about institutional racism, calling others out on offensive jokes and assumed stereotypes. But most of us encounter the opposite, the silence of people who learned a long time ago that to get along it's imperative to go along.

In part this is because they're carrying a load 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. Same goes for women, which is one reason the Clinton-Obama rivalry got so pitched during the primaries. Our piece of the pie is small, and often there's only one fork. When someone like Senator McCain says he's opposed to quotas, it sounds like country-club code for "We liked the pie the old way."

It's been rumored that Senator Obama did not include his race on his application to Harvard Law School, but it's probable that at least a few of his classmates would have assumed that his place came to him because he was, in the words of Stephen L. Carter's book title, an affirmative-action baby. That's another weight that successful black Americans carry, the suspicion that they got to wherever they've gone because of special pleadings. Of course there is also affirmative action for well-to-do whites, from legacy college admissions to the old boys' club of hiring and connections. Somehow this is never thought to be the same.

The fallacy at the heart of most discussions of affirmative action is twofold: that it replaced a true meritocracy, and that it means promoting the second-rate. The meritocracy theory requires us to believe that for decades no women and no people of color were as qualified as white men, who essentially had every field locked up. Belief in the ascendancy of the second-rate requires us to demean the qualifications of countless writers, jurists, doctors, academics and other professionals who gained entry and then performed superlatively. Part of the tacit deal for most of them was not that they be as good as their lackluster white male counterparts, but as good as the best of them.

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