John McCain's campaign has accused Barack Obama of having "played the race card" for suggesting Republicans would highlight his race in the general election campaign:
Senator John McCain’s campaign accused Senator Barack Obama on Thursday of playing “the race card,” citing his remarks that Republicans would try to scare voters by pointing out that he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.”
...“Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck,” Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, charged in a statement with which Mr. McCain later said he agreed. “It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.”
According to MSNBC, Obama's campaign is (absurdly) denying that the "dollar bills" comment referred to him being black:
McCain has accused Obama of playing politics with race for predicting that the likely Republican nominee and others in the GOP would try to scare voters by saying the Democrat "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills." Obama's spokesmen denied he was referring to being black, although all the presidents on U.S. currency are white.
This is silly. I don't think there's any question that Obama's race will be made salient by Republicans at various levels, though this is of course usually done in less blatant ways than pointing out that he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills." It's also not clear to what extent these insinuations will be made by John McCain and his campaign rather than surrogates and political allies.
There are two problems with these debates. The first is that our political discourse doesn't allow for any middle ground between race-neutral statements and (supposed) accusations of racism. For instance, during his confirmation as Attorney General, John Ashcroft was criticized for exploiting the issue of race. Ashcroft's supporters falsely characterized this as an accusation of racism and asserted that Ashcroft is not a racist. The same tactic was also used to defend Ronald Reagan from charges that he exploited the issue of race.
Now McCain's campaign is using the same approach, falsely suggesting that Obama said McCain was a racist:
"We are not going to let anybody paint John McCain, who has fought his entire life for equal rights for everyone, to be able to be painted as racist," Davis said Friday on "Today" on NBC. "We've seen this happen before and we're not going to let it happen to us."
..."Barack Obama never called John McCain a racist," Axelrod said on "The Early Show" on CBS. "What Barack Obama was saying is he's not exactly from Central Casting for presidential candidates."
A related tactic is for Republicans to raise criticisms of Obama with racial overtones but deny that those overtones exist (for instance, accusing Obama of "intellectual laziness" or raising his "trash talking" as "an unattractive carryover from his days playing pickup basketball at Harvard"). Then, when Democrats like Obama object, they can be characterized as "playing the race card," not Republicans. (Using "the race card" to delegitimize critiques of racial insensitivity or exploitation of racial prejudice is similar to the "racial McCarthyism" buzzword promoted by David Horowitz and other conservatives.)
The irony is that "race card" was previously used by Democrats to describe GOP exploitation of the issue of race (as in the Harvey Gantt/Jesse Helms US Senate race). But increasingly Republicans have turned it back at Democrats. Here's one of the earliest high-profile examples from a New York Times article (7/12/91) on the Congressional Black Caucus announcing its opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas:
[Senator John C.] Danforth, who has acted as Judge Thomas's sponsor on Capitol Hill this week, accused the black lawmakers of "playing the race card" in much the same way Republicans have exploited the quota issue in the civil rights debate.
Since then, the phrase has increasingly been used against Democrats who criticize Republicans on issues of race. (For an example of a similar reversal, see our Spinsanity column on Republican use of civil rights jargon in the debate over the policies of Boy Scouts of America.)
On the flip side, however, the subtlety of racial appeals makes it easy to manufacture unsubstantiated or unconvincing allegations against Republicans. For example, like Matthew Yglesias, I don't buy the Josh Marshall critique (here, here, and here) of McCain's ad featuring Paris Hilton and Britney Spears as racially coded:
I think the McCain campaign's "Celebrity" ad and the whole line about Barack Obama being too arrogant or something are pretty ridiculous, but it's a bit puzzling to me to see liberals expressing the view that these are some kind of crypto-racist lines of attack. Given that Obama's black, and America's history, I think it's always going to be possible to read some kind of racial subtext into attacks on him. But both of these are lines of argument you could easily imagine being deployed against a white candidate and, indeed, they're fundamentally similar to arguments Republicans regularly make against Democrats.
The problem, then, is that Democrats have an incentive to generate flimsy charges of racial exploitation and Republicans have an incentive to delegitimize them altogether. It's a no-win situation.
In a dispute about race, the McCain campaign knows it will end up with the larger half. For the most part, most white people's experience with race isn't one of racial discrimination. They can only relate to racial discrimination in the abstract. What white people can relate to is the fear of being unjustly accused of racism. This is the larger half. This is why allegations of racism often provoke more outrage than actual racism, because most of the country can relate to one (the accusation of racism) easier than the other (actual racism). For this reason, in a political conflict over race, the McCain campaign has the advantage, because saying the race card has been played is actually the ultimate race card.