The evolution of the race card in American politics

It would be or ought to be dangerous if we ever get to the point where the charge of racism becomes so overused and hackneyed as to be meaningless. Such a term ought to retain its potency as a weapon of shame and disapproval. Yet there are times, I must confess, that I almost wouldn’t miss it. Last week in Washington, D.C., we saw the culmination of a long and dire campaign to sabotage the reform of the city’s schools. For years now, since the time of the disgraceful Marion Barry, a rumor has been circulated in the black wards of the capital that there is a thing called “The Plan.” This sinister scheme involves the deliberate erosion of black neighborhoods and communities in the interests of a white/Hispanic ascendancy. That would make its supposed leader a Korean-American named Michelle Rhee who as the city’s chancellor of public schools was willing to close hopeless schools and to fire illiterate and unqualified teachers. Despite the support of the Obama administration, the reform and the reformers have now been voted down. In a succession of articles, Colbert I. King, one the Washington Post’s leading black columnists, more or less explicitly head-counted Mayor Adrian Fenty’s nonblack appointments and encouraged citizens to think with their epidermis. So, in voting for the re-election of a black mayor and for the approved program of a black president, I can be held to have cast a “white” vote and to have played a race card without even knowing it. It is not only on the right that the auction of demagogy is operating, and the bids are headed downward.