The race card generally refers to using a claim of racism to gain unfair advantage in a discussion. It is typically used in the context of "playing the race card".
The term seems to have arisen during Harvey Gantt's second bid (1996) to unseat longtime racist North Carolina senator Jesse Helms. In his 1990 campaign against Gantt, Helms ran a television ad ad showing a black man taking a white man's job, intended as a criticism of the idea of racial quotas. Gantt's 1996 response to Helms's covert 1990 accusation (that Gantt supported such quotas) was apparently seen as playing the race card.
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