Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Herman Cain: Cracking the Black Walnut

According to at a CBS poll, a black man is tied for the lead for the Republican nomination for President.  That is a fact, not fiction.  Moreover, it does not appear to be an artifact of polling.  Public Policy Polling, one of the more respected polling outfits, found that in the most recently polled states, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Nebraska, Cain is leading his fellow contenders.  What should we make of this fact? I am surprised that this issue is not receiving much attention.

Perhaps it is because no one, other than Herman Cain himself, believes that Cain can win the nomination. One possibility is to assume that Republican voters will come to their senses and "Cainmentum" will go the way of Bachmanmania. This seems to be the view of Meghan McCain who seems to be horrified that Cain could be the nominee and has exhorted the base "to start getting serious and concentrate on electability as opposed to the person who can garner the best sound bites and media attention (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump). The time for flirtation with media personalities is over. It’s time for Republicans to commit to real leadership.

Does Herman Cain's unexpected surge show that conservative white voters in very conservative places are willing to vote for a black person provided that the candidate shares their ideology? If the Cain flirtation is indeed a serious one, what does it say about the relationship between race and politics?  I think it makes that relationship extremely more complicated.  When Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination and was eventually elected to the presidency, some commentators viewed that event as exorcising the last racial taboo in American politics thus undermining the regime upon which the Voting Rights Act is built.  I was and remain skeptical that President Obama's election fundamentally altered the story that we tell about race and politics,but it certainly complicated the story.  If we see more Barack Obamas and Deval Patricks,  we will then need to rethink at least part of the simple story that we tell about race and politics.

The question is even more pertinent in the case of Herman Cain and the Republican Party.  The Republican Party is overwhelmingly white and its leaders are also overwhelmingly white.  Many liberals and folks of color believe that the Republican Party is inhospitable to the interests of people of color.  Indeed, some would go so far to call the Party (or perhaps more accurately important elements of the Party) racist.  If Herman Cain wins the GOP nomination or even comes in second, does it complicate the story that we can tell about the relationship between race and politics in the Republican Party?

Consider this question from another and completely different vantage point.   After the Washington Post wrote an article about Niggerhead Rock, the long-time purported name of Rick Perry's hunting camp painted on a rock outside of the camp, Herman Cain chastised Governor Perry for taking too long in removing the word Nigger from the rock.  Not surprisingly there was some conservative blowback.  Many such as Rush Limbaugh raised cain (sorry) on the ground that Herman Cain was playing the race card and exploiting an issue for racial gain in the mold of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.  What was surprising to me was the reaction of progressives and leftists to the conservative blowback.  Markos Moulitsas tweeted that "Herman Cain's usefulness to the GOP ended the second he decided to call out obvious, overt racism."  Moulitsas also tweeted "Cain had some promise. Unfortunately for him, nothing turns off GOP more than a black guy taking umbrage at racism."  The thoughtful Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote:

It has charged earlier by some commenters that liberals only offer a racial critique when it's a conservative. I can't speak for "liberals," but the record on this board is fairly transparent. 

It's not so much that there are no liberal racists, it's that liberals have cultivated a constituency which takes racism seriously as opposed to claiming that  Karl Rove actually writes Bill Maher's jokes. All liberals aren't on board with that constituency, and so there's a fight. This is a good thing.

But the GOP has no real need of black voters, and to a lesser extent, non-white voters period. And on the national level, it has no need of black candidates to speak on race--except in so much as they defuse the sense that an uncomfortable portion of the GOP's base is racist. 

Herman Cain--a man who owes his place in the primary to an almost exclusively white electorate--forgot that prime directive. Today he was given a reminder[.]
Or consider Adam Serwer's take:
But when a man who is old enough to recall living under American apartheid gets a little emotional over a piece of land called "Niggerhead," that's where the right draws the line. Not just because Cain is attacking a fellow Republican, but because he stepped out of the proper role of a black conservative, which is to reassure Republicans that their political problems with race are the inventions of a liberal conspiracy. Cain just ran head first into the brick wall of conservative anti-anti-racism, the attitude on the right that accusations of racism directed at white people are of far greater consequence than any lingering vestiges of institutional racism nonwhites might face.
I think these analyses are too simple and too comforting. First, they don't seem to take the Cain candidacy seriously.  The black man here is window-dressing; you trot him out when you need evidence that you're not racist or all-white, but he is not a serious contender for the top prize.  (Those in legal academia who have seen a dean search finalist pool recognize the move here.  There is almost always a black person in the finalist pool that almost everyone, including the interviewee, knows is not going to get the job.  But we have to pretend. So you ask him/her what is the first thing they would change as dean.)  But if the Cain candidacy is a serious one and the GOP needs this black candidate because he might be their best chance to regain the White House then Coates and Serwer are painting too simple a picture.  Their message to Cain is "Dude, quit pretending everyone knows that you're not going to win and that they won't vote for you.  Your only purpose is to make them look good."  But what if he could win and what if they would vote for him?

This leads to the second point.  How would a black candidate behave when faced with a white electorate who is skittish about race?  The answer is pretty obvious: one need only look at Barack Obama, the current President of the United States. (Remember the beer summit). Racial equality has generally fallen off the Democratic Party's radar.  This has been the complaint of the CBC for the last few months.  Remember Representative Maxine Waters' dare to the Obama aide "say black."  To single-out the Republicans here as especially deserving of opprobrium is comforting but I don't think it provides a full picture of a more complex landscape.

If Cain wins the nomination (yes, very big IF) or even if he comes second, I think the political reality will change our race and politics narrative and it will not do say that the Republicans have a problem with race but the Democrats don't.      

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