Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I'm sorry: did you say "race car"? Oh. Then that's different.

Donovan McNabb is a black quarterback--actually, he's probably the most prominent black quarterback in the NFL right now. Furthermore, racist stereotypes and the quarterback position have a long, ugly history; as Lloyd Vance writes, "African American Quarterbacks in their history have been shunned, converted to other positions, fought for inclusion, stereotyped (Drastic Misconceptions about the Leadership and Intelligence of African American Quarterbacks) and chased opportunities in other leagues."

So, given the history of racism and stereotypes involving black quarterbacks, don't you want to know what the most prominent black quarterback in the NFL thinks about race and the position? And if he answers honestly that he thinks race is still a factor in the treatment of quarterbacks, isn't that worth listening to?

Why would we want to stifle such a discussion? Why would we accuse him of "playing the race card," as if he's saying something irrelevant? What he's saying is quite important. I want to know what McNabb thinks. I want him to be honest. And I want his opinions to spark legitimate discourse (in which, of course, you're free to disagree with McNabb and argue against what he actually says). What I don't want is for McNabb's opinions to be dismissed, and accusing him of "playing the race card" is an attempt to dismiss his words.

I wish I would never have to hear or read the phrase "the race card" ever again. Of any other cliched figure of speech, it's by far my least favorite.

It's not simply that it's a mindless cliche (which it is). It's that the accusation of "playing the race card" is an attempt to invalidate a discussion. We should have honest discussions about race; discourse on the issue is a method of progress. But to accuse somebody who discusses race of "playing the race card" is to suggest that race isn't a factor, that race shouldn't be discussed in this case, and that the person is injecting race where it doesn't belong.

Accusing somebody of "playing the race card" is an attempt to avoid serious discussion and debate. It's usually used as an attempt (sometimes explicit, sometimes not) to say something like "Donovan McNabb shouldn't be discussing race here" or "McNabb is wrong to bring up the subject of race" or "McNabb should shut up."

Accusing somebody of "playing the race card" is usually an attempt to dismiss an idea rather than address it.

If a person brings up race and says something you disagree with, then explain why. Discuss it, argue it. Address the issue. But don't accuse the person of "playing the race card" as if he/she is trying to actually deflect serious discussion by using race; talking about race is serious discussion. Don't try to invalidate or diminish the person's argument with this cliche.

How can people discuss race, stereotypes, and racism reasonably and honestly? How can people be honest while discussing race? Shouldn't we have reasonable and honest discussions about race? Shouldn't people be honest when they perceive racism? And why should we dismiss or diminish such discussion?

The very figure of speech "the race card" suggests we as a society still have a lot of progress to make; unfortunately, this cliche often prevents that progress from occuring.

Addendum: Cobra Brigade also says that McNabb is right, and that players like McNabb should speak up about the issue.


  1. Anonymous2:30 PM

    Question on the race part, where is a Native American quarterback, or for that matter an Asian-American stack for pressure?

  2. Anonymous3:21 PM

    I agree with the major thrust of your post, PV, but by the same token, accusing someone of acting in a racist manner, absent substantial proof, is a vile form of ad hominem attack which is frequently employed to discredit people. If one is going to accuse someone of acting in a racist manner, one should bring the empirical evidence, and absent such evidence, one should refrain from that accusation. Also, one's feelings don't qualify as empirical evidence.

  3. As long as there is Differences in Opinions,Race, or as in this case job description. Stereotyping,Hatreds and whatever mankind can think of will be used to demean others.Its our human nature to belittle those around us.The fault lies at every watercooler,coffee counter, bar, lounge where it is allowed to nuture these Hatreds, Sterotypes and demeaning thoughts.
    As long as its permissable to express these Hatreds then that is how long it will prevail.We as human beings have to stamp this out but then what would we hate if we did that.

  4. Anonymous10:41 PM

    What do you think about the West Coast offence? I don't like it for us, I don't think our favorite team is built for it and I would be better served throwing deep patterns for Sidney Rice or Troy.

  5. Anon 2: I partly agree with you. However, when talking about racism in today's world, perception is as significant a discussion point as empirical evidence. If McNabb perceives racial inequality, I'd like to know it, and I'd like him to talk about why. I think if McNabb perceives inequality, it's worth examining the possibility his perception is right, or at the very least discussing why he might have that perception. And in this case, McNabb is talking about a general perception, not making an accusation directed at a particular source. Yes, in most discussions on any issue I'd prefer empirical data too, but I think perceptions are worthy of discussion also.

    Anon 4: I'm neither pleased or displeased with the West Coast offense; I'm not entirely sure a different offensive system would make the offense better. In the first few games, they seem to be attempting to take shots down the field. We'll see if they can have some success at it.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you PV. The term "playing the race card," angers me to the point that I couldn't possibly express my feelings about it as well as you did. You are right on about how dismissive the phrase is.

  7. Anonymous1:41 AM

    PV, discussing one's perceptions is one thing. Portraying one's perceptions as established facts is quite another. Asserting that another human being is behaving in a racist manner is a serious accusation, and serious accusations deserve serious evidence. People who make serious accusations against specific people, without putting forth evidence, or who make generalized accusations against an amorphous group, and then are unwilling to engage in specificity, are often quite reasonably viewed with great skepticism, if not outright cynicism, and that is sometimes where the phrase "playing the race card" comes from.

    I, too, cringe at the use of the phrase, in that it does often spring from a desire to prevent any discussion of race, no matter how well founded. Unfortunately, I've also often found that the use of the charge of racism is used in a intellectually dishonest fashion, not to bring a wrongful act or behavior into the light, but rather to be used as a cudgel, to beat an opponent with a unsubstantiated but nevertheless vile charge, in order to discredit him as a human being, so as to avoid an honest debate.

  8. One problem is that when we talk about implicit racism and inequality, I'm not sure there's always going to be empirical evidence to deal with. And yet, I see pretty clearly that it exists. Furthermore, if a person or group of people perceive some inequality, that is a story in itself, and worthy of discussion.

    Yes, I agree that asserting racism can be used in the same was as accusing someone of "playing the race card." And based on how I've been taught, being called a "racist" or a "bigot" is pretty much the worst thing one can be called, so I don't want such accusations thrown around haphazardly.

    But even without clear evidence, I want McNabb to be honest about his own feelings, because that in itself matters. McNabb thinks that black QBs have to do a little extra, and they get a different, harsher criticism if they fail. That's his opinion and impression based on well over a decade playing quarterback at different levels. I think his stature alone makes his opinion worth hearing. And I guess I don't require him to add "I think" or "In my opinion" before every statement he makes because I know that as it is him talking, he is providing his opinion.

    Now, of course, we all have our biases and opinions: one reason I might be so accepting of McNabb's unverified perception is because I think he's right.

  9. Another factor is that I think what McNabb said is so obviously true. If you tell me Wisconsin is east of Minnesota, I don't need you to show me a map: I've seen the map hundreds of times, and I've traveled from Minnesota to Wisconsin hundreds of times. So, too, if you tell me that black people get treated differently than white people in American society, I don't require a specific example now: I've seen, read, heard, and experienced enough to make it so glaringly obvious I don't need further verification.

    One reason McNabb's comments garner such reaction is because we're not used to talking about this sort of thing on the mainstream level. We address racism usually when somebody like Don Imus say something overtly racist; we don't spend us much time (again, on the mainstream level) talking about implicit racial stereotypes, implicit inequality, or institutional racism. In my opinion, McNabb is stating the obvious (based on a history of stereotypes about black players that's pretty well verified), but the obvious is so little discussed at the mainstream level that it is jarring to hear.

  10. Anonymous9:03 AM

    My remarks were not directed at McNabb's comments per se, but at the same time, it's quite reasonable for someone to respond with this sort of question; "Donovan, Mike Schmidt played in this town as the greatest thrid baseman in baseball history up until then. He won a World Series. He was often booed incessantly, and had ridicule heaped upon him, despite behaving like the consumate professional. He is white. Please explain how his treatment was less harsh that yours, relative to each of your accomplishments, and if you cannot provide such an explanation, please explain how the color of his skin did not benefit Mr. Schmidt, given your theories, when it came to public expectations and demands."

    Sorry, the world is simply too rife with examples of what "everybody knows" being exactly wrong for me to put much stock in feelings. Do people get harmed by racism? Absolutely, and I can prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt, just like I can prove the position of Wisconsin relative to Minnesota. I can also prove it sometimes with the standard of a preponderance of evidence, which is often good enough.

    I think I could likely achieve this standard of evidence with regard to whether most black quarterbacks are subjected to greater criticism, by the general public, relative to performance, than white quarterbacks. I am far less certain of this with regard to the sports media, and I'm no fan of the sports media. Whether McNabb specifically has been more subjected to more criticism, by either the general public or the sports media, relative to performance, compared to a similarly performing white quarterback, is a long, long, way from being established with a preponderance of evidence. There is nothing unreasonable in asking McNabb to supply the evidence, and viewing his failure to supply such evidence as indicative of a largely speculative accusation. It's a free country, or it should be, and McNabb by all means is free to express his perceptions. The standard for having one's perceptions taken seriously, for a lot of observers, is reasonably set higher.

  11. Certainly, and my point is, you should bring up the Schmidt example. That's a part of reasonable discourse. It might be asking a bit much of a guy spending his time quarterbacking to do the research necessary to find objective evidence, but it's not too much to expect objective data to be provided somewhere in the discussion.

    And I agree on the point that it's easier to see unequal treatment and implicit racism in general fan reactions than in media reactions.

  12. Anonymous10:46 AM

    Well, trust me, if Philly makes things untenable for McNabb as an Eagle in the next few weeks, I'd welcome him in a purple jersey, no questions asked, and may even be willing to risk a conditional first round draft pick. Then again, PFT reports that Larry Fitzgerald may want out of Phoenix, and I'd trade an unconditional first rounder for him yesterday.