Play the race card
To attempt to gain advantage in an election by pandering to the electorate's racism. Also, more recently, to attempt to gain advantage by drawing attention to one's race.
This term is now more often used in the USA than in other countries. A 'race card' is the name of the card that lists the runners and riders at horse races, but hat's not the race card being referred to in 'playing the race card'. The expression alludes to the trump card in card games like whist.
Following an influx of immigrants into the UK in the 1950/60s there was known to be a degree of racist discontent amongst the predominantly white indigenous population. Reputable politicians avoided acknowledging this openly but there was an informal gentlemen's agreement not to benefit electorally by pandering to this racist element. Peter Griffiths, the Conservative candidate for the parliamentary seat of Smethwick in the UK's 1964 General Election, was accused of using the slogan "If you want a nigger neighbour - vote Labour", in an attempt to capitalize on the electorate's fears of being 'swamped' by immigrants.
Whenever a phrase is seen to match the circumstances, folk-etymologists (the jargon name that etymologists give to amateur etymologists) are eager to make claims like "Peter Griffith coined the term in 1964". In fact, he didn't. It was later, once the phrase 'play the race card' had become part of the language in the 1980s, that commentators wrote pieces suggesting that Griffiths 'played the race card' in order to get elected. No one said it at the time. This form of skewwhiff theorising is called back-formation.
There is another back-formation relating to the phrase 'play the race card' and although, like all back-formations, it is an invented derivation, this one is more plausible than most. In 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed the freedom of black slaves in certain US states. The London based magazine Punch didn't support Lincoln's tactic and published a satirical cartoon entitled Abe Lincoln's Last Card; Or, Rouge-et-Noir. The cartoon showed a card game between Lincoln and a confederate soldier. Lincoln, in the form of the Devil, was about to slam down the Ace of Spades, in the form of a black man's head, onto a tub of dynamite. The implication was that Lincoln was making a reckless political and military gamble by pronouncing slaves to be free. This wasn't the cartoonist John Tenniel's finest hour; he was of course better known as the illustrator of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (see 'off with his head', 'grinning like a Cheshire Cat', 'as dead as a dodo' , 'jam tomorrow' and 'as mad as a March hare').
It would have been perfectly reasonable to say that Lincoln was 'playing the race card' in that cartoon. However, no one did say it at the time and the notion that the phrase derives from Lincoln's 'Last Card' cartoon is erroneous.
The earliest example that I can find of the expression 'play the race card' in print is from the Indiana newspaper the Kokomo Tribune, November 1989:
Judge [Alcee L.] Hastings has been playing the race card ever since the F.B.I. closed in on him in 1982.
That usage, which refers to someone attempting to gain advantage by drawing attention to their race, became commonplace in the USA around the time of O. J. Simpson's trial for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Several US newspapers used the phrase to describe the tactics of Simpson's defence lawyers; for example, this piece by Roger Simon in The Daily Herald, October 1995:
"Why was playing the race card necessary in order for O. J. Simpson to go free? Because it was the only way for the defense to deal with the massive physical evidence against him."