Sunday, March 2

Stanford's Richard Thompson Ford looks at black and white and sees gray


San Francisco

It's just before noon, and Sam's Grill rapidly fills with the power-lunch crowd. The clientele of this venerable Financial District eatery are unmistakably old-school, graying white men in business suits who order Manhattans and veal chops from tuxedo-clad waiters. Even here in San Francisco, a guy in line for a table jokes loudly about a gay acquaintance being "light in his loafers." Richard Thompson Ford steps in out of a drenching Pacific storm, one of few men in the room with dark skin and no necktie.

He is not at his table more than a few minutes when his chair gets pushed violently by some guy being seated behind him. No "Excuse me" or "May I please?" Just his chair hurtling forward so quickly and unexpectedly his face briefly signals alarm, as a voice behind him mumbles something in midshove about needing more space.

A lot of people would have taken the shove personally, and reacted with anger as they seized upon some explanation for the perceived slight.

Ford clearly noticed the shove; he could recall it three weeks after the fact. But he chose at the time to let it roll off of him, continuing his conversation. Later, explaining his reaction, he says he feels comfortable at Sam's. He frequented the place in a past job as a lawyer working nearby, and he knows it gets crowded. He sees getting jostled as just part of the Sam's dining experience. No big deal.

Considering the broader context of real and potential conflict is something Ford does a lot these days.

A law professor at Stanford University, Ford has taken it upon himself to analyze many of the high-profile racial controversies that have divided Americans in recent decades, mulling over the Tawana Brawley incident, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the accusations of racism surrounding the federal government's botched handling of Hurricane Katrina.

He published his assessment of race relations in America in a book, The Race Card (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), released late last month. And the conclusions he reached have been winning him praise as a fresh voice among black scholars, a critical race theorist willing to skewer the identity-politics movements of the left while challenging conservative opponents of affirmative action and those who prescribe personal responsibility as the cure for what ails black America.

His bottom-line conclusion is that many allegations of racism — as well as other forms of discrimination — are not just false but counterproductive. The behaviors the accusers attribute to discrimination are actually due to something else, usually broader societal problems. And the back and forth of accusation and denial set in motion by such discrimination complaints sidetracks discussions of how to solve bigger problems, and sometimes even keeps us from realizing those problems exist.

"The assumption is that if there is a racial inequity, there is a racist to blame for it," Ford said when interviewed at Sam's. Conversely, he said, "if there is no racist, people think there is no problem." The reality, he said, is that "we can have a lot of racial problems in our society even when there aren't any racists to blame for them."

In his book (subtitled How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse), Ford calls for a different approach to remedying most racial injustice. Rather than thinking of it much as we think of crime — as the product of wrongdoing by individuals who may or may not ultimately be held accountable — we should instead approach it as we do air pollution, as an urgent social problem that is better solved through collective action than by trying to affix the blame.

So far, at least, Ford's book has been well received by both scholars and pundits. In a review in The New York Times, the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson praised The Race Card as the work of "an exquisitely subversive mind," offering "a vigorous and long-overdue shake-up of the nation's stale discourse on race." Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal called it "a lively new book" with "a wealth of perceptive insights." Writing for The New York Sun, John H. McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said that Ford "is not the contrarian that the book's title and publicity have been crafted to imply," but that his basic point "remains valuable."

It is hard to imagine Ford's book escaping any sort of backlash, however, given the many fights he picks in it. He accuses several popular black figures — including Al Sharpton, Oprah Winfrey, and Cornel West — of making allegations of racial bias that were unsubstantiated or hollow. In a chapter called "Wild Card: Racism by Analogy," he roams well beyond the field of race relations in search of targets. He mauls People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for comparing animal husbandry to human slavery and racist lynching. He pokes fat-acceptance advocates for equating racial discrimination and discrimination against the overweight, contending that "fat is not the new black" and that, for most people, losing weight is "only moderately challenging." Drawing upon his scholarly interest in an area tangential to the book — gay rights — he argues that advocates of same-sex marriage err in labeling their opponents as bigots, and that they might achieve more if they focused on seeking the legalization of domestic partnerships and same-sex civil unions.

Lashing right, he says Clarence Thomas "shamelessly played the race card" in describing his confirmation hearing as a high-tech lynching, and finds "ostrichlike obliviousness" in Ward Connerly's failed 2003 California ballot initiative to severely limit when state agencies could classify people based on race.

Paul Campos, a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Obesity Myth (Gotham, 2004), challenges Ford's assertion about the ease of losing weight as "just nonsense" in light of medical research on the subject. And, he argues, the "enormous amount of discrimination focused on people today who are heavier than average" makes comparing weight discrimination to racial discrimination appropriate, even if the analogy may be somewhat imprecise.

But Richard Delgado, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, says he believes Ford "is quite right" in asserting that the victims of various nonracial forms of discrimination — such as Hispanic people who endure ethnic bias rooted in their historical status as the subjects of conquest — need to stake out their own justifications for legal protection, apart from the body of law prohibiting discrimination based on race. Ford's argument on this point "should strike a responsive chord for leading Latino scholars," Delgado says.

Working in favor of The Race Card is remarkable timing. Nearly two years in the works, it managed to hit the bookstores just before last month's South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, when it seemed that race cards were being played like ace-king combinations at a blackjack tournament. With the real possibility that Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton will still be battling for the Democratic presidential nomination at convention time, and Ward Connerly seeking to get bans on affirmative-action preferences on the ballot in five states, issues of race and gender are likely to remain hotly debated throughout much of the year.

On a personal level, Ford, 42, has spent much of his life negotiating predominantly white environments and achieving considerable success within them.

He was raised mostly in Fresno, Calif., where his father was dean of the school of health and social work at the local campus of California State University. He recalls that Central Valley city as a place where people seemed decent but unenlightened. He was always one of just a few black children in his classes at its public schools.

Ford earned his bachelor's degree in political science from Stanford in 1988. He then enrolled at Harvard Law School, becoming a housing-policy consultant for the City of Cambridge during his final year. His work on housing policy got him interested in the study of race relations and segregation and helped shape his perspective on such matters. He says he frequently encountered neighborhood segregation "in the absence of discriminatory intent." The cause, rather than existing racism, he says, was often a combination of historical discrimination and the self-interested behavior of people who simply saw integration as hard on home values.

After graduating from Harvard Law in 1991, Ford worked for about a year and a half as a litigation associate at a San Francisco law firm; was awarded a 16-month fellowship at Harvard studying political geography, race relations, and urban law; and then took a position on the faculty of Stanford Law School. His wife, Marlene, works in San Francisco as a trademark lawyer, and he commutes to Stanford from their home in the city's Sunset District.

Ford has published one other book on race relations, Racial Culture: A Critique (Princeton University Press, 2005). In it he challenged those scholars of multiculturalism who advocate the use of civil-rights laws to protect certain cultural practices so that, for example, refusing to hire someone because he wears his hair in dreadlocks would be viewed in much the same light as refusing to hire someone based on his ethnic background. Ford argued that enshrining "cultural rights" in law would be a mistake, and harmful to the intended beneficiaries, because it would result in rigid, limiting definitions of how the members of certain social groups are expected to behave.

When interviewed last month, Ford said he was well aware that cultural differences could be a source of societal conflict, with people coming under pressure from others to comply with certain norms. "But," he said, "better to have the conflicts worked out in the rough-and-tumble of real life than to have the outcomes dictated by the courts."

Other legal scholars did not wholeheartedly embrace Racial Culture and the positions Ford took in it. In the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, Barbara J. Flagg, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, called Ford's critique of "rights to difference" proponents "little more than a disappointing caricature," and said he had presented her views on the subject in a manner she found "infuriatingly misleading." When Ford initially staked out his position in 2000 in an essay published in the UCLA Law Review, Leti Volpp, then an assistant professor of law at American University, praised the article as "largely persuasive and extremely insightful" but argued that Ford underestimated how often discrimination against certain cultural traits is "an expression of racial hostility."

Ford revisits his critique of multiculturalism in The Race Card. He writes, "The proponents of multicultural rights are inspired by a worldview and commitments that few Americans of any race share" and "blithely advance a radical agenda that would force employers and businesses to effectively subsidize ethnic and racial nationalism." In tying their agenda to civil rights, he says, multicultural-rights advocates imperil both because the laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations are acts of Congress that "can be amended, watered down, or even repealed" if rendered unpopular through such linkages.

Most of his new book's barbs are not aimed at multiculturalists, however, but at prominent African-Americans whom he sees as too hasty to level charges of racial discrimination.

Take Cornel West, the prominent Princeton University religion professor and author of the widely read book Race Matters (Beacon Press, 1993). In his book, West recounted parking his "rather elegant" car in "a safe parking lot" in New York City and waiting at the corner of 60th Street and Park Avenue to catch a cab to meet a photographer in East Harlem. "After the ninth taxi refused me, my blood began to boil," West wrote.

Ford sees the cab drivers who refused West as motivated by a fear of crime, rather than racism, and poses the question: If West won't risk taking his car into East Harlem, why should he expect a cab driver to risk his livelihood, and maybe even his life, to go there? (West could not be reached for comment.)

Oprah Winfrey comes under Ford's microscope for alleging racism when an exclusive Herm├Ęs leather-goods store in Paris refused to let her in to shop 15 minutes after closing time. Michael Jackson gets taken to task for blaming a "racist conspiracy" at Sony Music for the tanking of one of his albums.

Of the many examples cited by Ford to make his point, perhaps the most illustrative does not involve a specific person, but a place: New Orleans. Yes, he says, racism did play a role in the suffering of that city's residents after Hurricane Katrina. But it was the past racism that left the city's black residents congregated in low-lying neighborhoods and created a cycle of poverty that left many unable to afford homes elsewhere or cars to flee quickly when the levees broke. The Bush administration's handling of the disaster betrayed shortsightedness, incompetence, perhaps even indifference to a constituency it did not view as politically supportive. But "there is little evidence George Bush cares less about poor black people than poor whites," Ford says.

Ford sees himself as on the political left, despite his criticisms of many other thinkers found there. He characterizes American society as "in many ways inequitable and in need of reform." And he rejects the view of many conservative black scholars that promoting personal responsibility will fix problems that have plagued black Americans for generations. "When you are confronting social problems, what you need are social solutions," he says.

Ford predicts many such problems will not be remedied cheaply or easily, and some of the solutions he offers are likely to make conservatives cringe. He suggests, for example, that the single best solution to ghetto poverty may be the creation of a public-sector jobs program, similar to the Works Progress Administration created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

Among the other policies Ford advocates is affirmative action in college admissions, though not for the sake of what he calls "the questionable pedagogy of diversity." The point, he argues, should be the racial integration of colleges. And just as he believes people should be willing to endure a modest amount of racial profiling by law-enforcement agencies when it is a practical necessity, he thinks white and Asian-American college applicants should be willing to risk longer admissions odds to help integrate the institutions they wish to enter. Those who respond by complaining of "reverse racism," he says, are themselves playing the race card.

In Ford's thinking, all of American society should learn this lesson from New Orleans: Pointing fingers at racists won't hold back the water. It's time to work together to shore up the levees.

Peter Schmidt is a senior writer at The Chronicle.