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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Jesse Helms

play the race card

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “appeal to one’s worst instincts,” “stir up trouble”)

Apparently a Briticism, which came as rather a surprise to me, considering the expression smacks so richly of American penchants for prejudice and poker. The earliest appearances in LexisNexis began in the U.K. ca. 1986 and didn’t show up in U.S. sources until 1990, though it took root very quickly (see penchants noted above). No hits from any country in Google Books before 1985, either. I would love to have a fuller understanding of the origin of “play the race card.” Few expressions have a clear origin or single inventor, but normally one finds isolated early examples preceding a flowering, or similar expressions serving as transitional forms. (In this case, an example might be Nixon’s references to playing the China card, presumably part of an old China hand, as one source suggests.) But in this case it seems to have caught on more or less instantly, at least by linguistic standards. Some sources suggest that the O.J. Simpson trial lent it ubiquity in the U.S.

The other surprise came out of the discovery that in those early British instances, and in many early American ones, too, the race card was played by the majority, fomenting suspicion and hatred of a minority group. I’ve grown used to hearing the practice imputed to members of minorities, trying to claim special privileges based on past discrimination. But it was originally a left-wing attack phrase, used of nationalist or anti-immigrant parties in England. Jesse Helms’s 1990 campaign for Senate against Harvey Gantt (who was African-American) ran an ad accusing him of favoring racial quotas, whereupon Helms was condemned for “playing the race card.” It worked; he came from behind to win a close election. By 2008, Republicans routinely accused Obama of the tactic; actually, right-wingers are happy to claim anyone, black, white, or red all over, is playing the race card. No matter which side does it, it is more than a breach of etiquette; it is dishonorable, a matter of taking unfair advantage. (It also constitutes a form of intimidation.) Which is a little strange, because in poker (or, more likely, bridge, as Lovely Liz points out), there’s nothing suspect about playing a card; it’s part of the normal course of the game. When transposed into politics, it becomes a low-down act, but maybe that says more about politics than cards.

The expression has spawned a few imitators; one hears occasional references to the “gender card,” “religion card,” “terrorist card,” or other nonce cards — but none as common, or quite as venomous, as “race card.” One rarely acknowledges playing the race card oneself; it is an accusation. Nor does one admire deft use of the race card, even when played effectively. Like negative campaigning, push polling, and plenty of other dubious political practices, everyone deplores it but will happily engage in it if it has any chance of working. Who says bipartisanship is dead?

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