I don't understand what it is to play the race card, so I don't use that expression. Race is fine to bring in when it's relevant and not ok to bring in when it's not, but such an expression seems to me to assume that it's always inappropriate. But I did want to say something about the following remarks (taken from here):
Nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have [sic] a real answer for the challenges we face. So what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky.
Notice that there's no explicit mention of race here. He also doesn't reference his middle name 'Hussein'. He just refers to it obliquely (or perhaps he's referring to his whole name, but it's his middle name that people have used against him). He also makes a veiled reference to his dark complexion with the comment about presidents on dollar bills. But he doesn't use any race terms. Further, when McCain called him out for playing the race card, his campaign denied that the dollar bill reference had anything to do with race. It was about his not being a Washington insider. (I sure hope he continues this line of defense, because if it becomes clear that he sees the founders of this country as evil Washington insiders whose government we need to do away with, then he's not going to be getting very far.) It seems as if he's dancing around the issues he wants to get across without saying anything about them. It makes it sound as if he's trying to engage in the politics of racial fear without losing his appearance of being a post-racial candidate of hope.
Compare his very similar speech from June 20:
The choice is clear. Most of all we can choose between hope and fear. It is going to be very difficult for Republicans to run on their stewardship of the economy or their outstanding foreign policy. We know what kind of campaign they're going to run. They're going to try to make you afraid. They're going to try to make you afraid of me. 'He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?'
Then the previous day (from the same source):
They're going to try to make me into a scary guy. They're even trying to make Michelle into a scary person. Right? I don't know, before I wasn't black enough. 'Now he might be too black. We don't know whether he's going to socialize - well, who knows what.'
This is (1) much more explicit, (2) very obviously about his race, and (3) exactly what his campaign was denying the more recent comment to have been about. It's hard to see this as anything but wanting to have it both ways. He's gotten a lot of traction from this post-racial stuff, even if he's never described himself or his campaign that way (it would indeed be offensive to many of his black supporters if he did, and they would be right to be offended at it). He's also running a campaign that he keeps describing as positive and a move away from the kind of politics of Washington and the negative racial politics of Sharpton and Jackson.
But at the same time he seems to be compelled to represent himself as the victim because of his race, when there's no evidence whatsoever that the McCain campaign will do anything other than what they've done so far, which is to go way out of their way to avoid anything racially negative. I don't think this should surprise us, though, because the candidate of hope needs to be a candidate of fear in order to present himself as the messianic alternative to all the evil that the opponent represents. If he can represent the status quo as bad, then identify McCain with it, then he's got the fear going independently in order to be the incarnation of hope himself.
But when it comes to racial hope, he has to be hope for two radically distinct approaches. He has to be hope for the faux color-blind, who think race is a thing of the past, something to get beyond, and he has to be hope for those who recognize that racial problems are real and won't go away just by being ok with black people and voting for a mixed-race candidate for president. He can't talk about race very much and has to speak positively about white people, or he won't be what the former group wants. But then he has to blame problems on racism for the second group to see him as authentic.
What he's chosen is entirely the wrong way to handle this. The right thing to do is teach people the ways that racial problems still occur even when everyone is well-intentioned, since those are the most pervasive and self-perpetuating kinds of racism. That's what the first group most needs. Then you call the second group on their victimology, letting them know that you can't just blame everything on racism unless there's a really good reason to think racism is involved. Of course, neither would be popular. But who expects Barack Obama to do what's unpopular, but both would seem to follow from the race speech he gave in order to distance himself from his long-time mentor Jeremiah Wright.
John McCain has already established himself as being willing to stick with his guns on unpopular positions. Remember the surge? He expected to lose the nomination over that one. Then he did it again with immigration. Those were issues where he was sure he was doing the right thing, and presidential hopes be damned. Obama sure sounded like he was giving a speech based on his deepest moral convictions. Yet he doesn't seem to be too quick to act on it. How often does he talk about ways racism can manifest itself in well-meaning people? Instead, he attributes evil motivations to someone who hasn't yet engaged in the behavior he's accusing him of being about to do (and by all evidence never will do it, either). I actually a liked a lot of what he said in his race speech, despite a number of minor quibbles and one or two more substantive worries. It would be nice if it were more than just words that he said in damage-control mode. If he really is going to be the first black president, I'd like it to be the Obama of that speech rather than the Obama of this campaign.