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Tuesday, 24 April, 2001, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
Playing the race card: Trump or joker?

play the race card, v • political tactic to appeal to racist motives in the electorate. Alternatively; political tactic to appeal to non-racist motives in the electorate by accusing an opponent of appealing to racist motives.

USAGE: "Despite their promises, electioneering politicians are toying with the `race card'." Sir Herman Ouseley, former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality.

DIRECTION 1: recently levelled at the Conservative Party, following the refusal of three MPs to sign a pledge not to campaign on racial issues, even though leader William Hague has signed up.

DIRECTION 2: also levelled at the left, as US radio star Neal Boortz points out: "Every good leftist Democrat knows if you can't win your argument on any other grounds, you always have race. The one big advantage to playing the race card, of course, is that you can paint any opposing thoughts or viewpoints as being racist."

ORIGINS: believed to have been coined in the UK in the 1960s. Conservative candidate in by-election in Smethwick was accused of using the slogan "If you want a nigger neighbour - vote Labour". He won the seat.

Phrase could be variation on Nixon's 1970s rapprochement with Beijing - known as playing the China card. William Safire's New Political Dictionary (1993) says: "Because of the play of power in card games, the metaphor has been applied to politics for centuries."

METAPHORICALLY: the phrase perpetuates the image of politics as being some grand game of cards. In that it has echoes of "playing the Joker" in It's a Knockout!, does it trivialise important emotive issues?

Perhaps it's a weak pun on "playing the ace card".

CONTESTED USAGE: can it be a good thing? "It is better for politicians to play the race card, treat the issue as a political football and deploy all the other clichés of game-playing metaphor, in order to subject one of the most important issues in Britain today to the mud-and-tumble of democratic debate." Independent, 22 April 01.

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