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The Race Card (Review)

Richard Thompson Ford (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

By Anne Arenstein · June 11th, 2008 · Lit

When victims of Hurricane Katrina face delays in getting federal assistance, when Oprah Winfrey is denied service at Hermés' flagship store in Paris as the store is closing and when no cab stops for Danny Glover in midtown Manhattan, the reflex action is to call it racism. Sounds like it is. But what if it isn't?

Answers are neither easy nor pleasant in The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, Richard Thompson Ford's brilliant and disquieting study of attitudes and politics in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and affirmative action policies. Ford, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, probes the above incidents and more with scrupulous objectivity, common sense and a keen wit that tempers the sometimes tedious but necessary legal analysis.

His attempts to separate genuine claims of racism from murkier calls are both spot-on and frustrating.

Ford sets out to demonstrate how social conflicts are recast as bigotry and the examples range from PETA's animal liberation campaigns to gay marriage, obesity ("Fat is not the new black") and multiculturalism. He includes plenty of his own experiences with discrimination, real or imagined, all described with insight and self-deprecating humor. Ford's analysis of civil rights and affirmative action legislation might be the most concise and intelligent explanation in print. So is his platform for tackling the forces that foster poor neighborhoods where cabdrivers won't go and where families cannot feed, house or educate their children.

He makes so much sense that there's no doubt he'll be branded as a bleeding heart and a right-wing apologist, but he's neither. As Ford makes abundantly clear in the book's subtitle and throughout this courageous account, bluffing about bias makes race relations worse.

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