A reference to poker's "Ace Card" which is "up someone's sleeve". The race card refers to having an unbeatable card in a card game, which, when played, must be either accepted or trumped by an entire hand of cards (see Rodney King).
The reality of the implementation of this term is that a lot of people misuse it in order to gain an advantage that they would not otherwise have. It plays into the idea that there actually are races, and that our differences matter more than our similarities. There is a valid use for this, but it is far overused and this overuse does not actually promote equality, it destroys it. The term "race card" implies that the entire issue is a game of one-upsmanship and that it's just a matter of who gains the upperhand.
The "race card" is in play any time someone uses the issue of race to benefit their position or defend their actions, and is used in such a way to construe that someone is being racist.
Misused by people of color: Juan's got one cracker of a boss, and is getting sick of the boss's crap. Juan's going to go in and demand a raise or quit. But Juan needs the job, so he's going to play the race card to squeeze the raise out of the boss, because Juan knows that they are a certified equal opportunity employer and the boss needs to keep his quota up.
Appropriate use by people of color: Suriah is being accused of stealing her employee keycard from work and is being terminated wrongfully because of it. However, she knows that lots of people who have accidentally taken these keys home, and being that the company is run by rich white people who probably don't really have a clue that they're being racist, and so she's going to take them to court and play the race card.
Inappropriate use by white people: Jim is just sure that his employee, Marcus, is stealing from him. However, Jim is worried that Marcus will play the race card if confronted, and so Jim is going to place hidden cameras in order to see if his suspicions are true... despite the ACLU's warning that it's an invasion of privacy.
Appropriate use by white people: George is prison inmate and believes that the other prisoners are going to give him a hard time (see rape) because he's a white guy that they're placing in a section filled with black racists (see Black Panthers). George is going to play the race card in order to get out of the situation and be placed in a section with other white people.
Final note: the application of humor to this topic is not in any way intended to diminish the serious nature of it. However, the truth of the matter is that far too many people play the race card who don't have to, and this weakens how effective it is in the long run. Keeping a sense of humor about things will help people to realize that we're all in the same boat, and genetics prove us to be human.
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