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To Play the Race Card or Not to Play the Race Card? That is the Question.

The Race Card - Seattle Criminal Lawyer Blog

This again?

I had not planned on talking more about this issue but after being asked some really interesting questions I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It gets so complicated. The best question was whether it is EVER possible to “play the race card”? Of course it is. The problem is that for every time someone “plays the race card” you have twenty people accusing them of playing the race card without justification. Which is the entire problem.

Quite frankly, I personally believe that most people who accuse someone of playing the race card are probably racist at some level, if not overtly, then subconsciously. At the very least, they do not have a very nuanced worldview.

However, since playing the race card has come to mean falsely accusing someone of being a racist, then saying someone is “playing the race card” when they are calling an actual racist a racist is to falsely accuse someone of falsely accusing someone of being racist. Everything turns into this crazy fuzzy pretzel logic where you have people falsely accusing people of falsely accusing people of things, which ties in nicely with my experience practicing criminal law, since that is the world I live in every day.

False accusations. Or not, as the case may be.


The Term “Race Card”

Playing the race card did not always mean simply falsely accusing someone of being a racist. This goes to another question that was asked, about the use of the word “thug” when describing Richard Sherman, and the origins of that word, which is where this whole race card issue suddenly appeared on this blog. Although thug may have originally meant “white gangster” when it was used back in the 1940’s, words and phrases evolve and change meaning over time. Otherwise we would all be running around grunting like cave men (not just the trolls.) More on that in a bit.

As for “race card”, I remember exactly when I first heard someone use the term, who said it, and why. It was Robert Shapiro, one of O.J. Simpson’s so called criminal defense attorneys. “So called” because anyone who talks out of school about his representation like that should be disbarred in my opinion. Confidentiality anyone? It was just plain wrong for him to go public with his opinions about the defense work he was personally involved in, regardless of his reasons, so long as no one was violating ethical rules or committing a crime like perjury or fraud, in which case he would have been ethically obligated to talk.

But here he was just calling out strategies. Wrong.

Shapiro took issue with the way Johnnie Cochran was using race to try to win the case. (Full disclosure: Shortly after the trial, Cochran’s law firm contracted with me to be their “Dream Team” representative in the State of Washington. Although I no longer work with them, I still carry around my business card with my name under his firm logo. It makes an interesting conversation piece.)


Funny thing though. Shapiro was partially saying it was wrong to call out Detective Mark Fuhrman, a lead investigator on the case for the LAPD, for using the N word in conversation. I guess Shapiro was cool with the main dude who was trying to kill his client lying under oath at trial when he testified that he never used that word.

But what Shapiro was really calling them out for was using race at all to their advantage. Like Cochran’s famous purple suit, or appealing directly to black jurors or having venue changed to downtown LA to avoid an all white jury (with which the DA agreed, by the way). I disagree. I think they were doing something I like to call “Good Work Representing their Client Zealously”, something Shapiro apparently doesn’t know much about. I think Shapiro was just jealous that Cochran stole the limelight and won the case.

White Perspective

White people all know about playing the race card. They tell jokes about it. Like seeing a young African American driver cutting off everyone on the highway, careening wildly around, endangering every living soul out there. They say stuff like “Bet if he gets pulled over he will say, ‘Is it because I’m black?!?’” And everyone laughs hysterically. Do not tell me that you have never heard something like that, white people. I know you have. And that is the problem. This is not a laughing matter. Especially if you are black.

Which brings me full circle back to where this entire discussion began, at least on this blog, with Richard Sherman and the use of the word ‘thug’ to describe him after his little tantrum following the Seahawks NFC Championship game against the ‘Forty Whiners’ back in 2014.

The commenter on my blog thought it was ignorant for me to say that using the word ‘thug’ to describe Sherman was code for the N word. The commenter said that in the 40’s ‘thug’ meant white gangster. I pointed out that words change over time and the current use of the word thug derives from a Tupac song that came out half a century after the 40’s called “Thug Life” and that now it is used to describe disaffected black youth… not to mention that calling Sherman a gangster was no better than calling him the N word, possibly worse. I resisted pointing out that not understanding basic etymology is in and of itself pretty ignorant.

Really it’s Ignorance

And ignorance is really the issue here. Ignorance about race and racism and what it is like to be the other person. Which is where I will leave it. Our society has a problem, not a new problem but a problem nevertheless. We have become so divided and stratified and politically segregated that no one even tries to understand anyone else. I see it every day in my work. My job is to try to explain to righteous prosecutors and biased judges and naïve jurors how things might be seen differently by two different people, no matter how minor or major the disagreement might be.

It might be just a simple misunderstanding. Two people walking down the street might look at each other, one person thinking, “Why is that guy glaring at me? What is his problem? What a goober!” And the other person might be thinking “Gosh, that guy looks just like my Uncle.” See? If they had taken the time to try to understand each other they might have discovered that they were distant relatives.

Because we are all distant relatives, no matter what our differences are. We are all human beings. It is about time we put down the pat phrases and cute comments and cutting criticisms and spend five minutes trying to understand one another. IS that such a huge chore? And even if it is, isn’t it worth the work? Or would you all rather just run around all day and hate each other?

So, white people, next time someone says someone is a racist, before screaming “race card” try to see their point of view, if only for a second. Pretend you are the other person and try to see how they feel. And, African Americans or Hispanics or Native Americans or Asian Americans, when someone is giving you a hard time, before you automatically assume they are racist (hard I know, since so many people are) try to see why they are saying bad things. Maybe it really is your bad driving or whatever. Easy for me to say, I know. I’m white. Which is why I know that I have to be very careful before I jump to conclusions about anyone based on their race. I mean, just because I am white it does not make me a racist. And just because someone isn’t it does not mean that they are falsely playing the race card. Especially when they are not.


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