The White Republican Mind of Herman Cain

Terrance Heath

Herman Cain - Caricature

He will not be the GOP nominee, but Herman Cain is on a roll. In Cain, the GOP appears to have finally found it’s “Great Black-or-Brown Hope.” Bobby Jindal looked like a promising candidate for a hot minute or two, before his abysmal State of the Union response. Then came Michael Steele, whose tenure as chair of the GOP was such a spectacular disaster that reasonable people wondered if he was really a Democratic double agent intent on sabotaging Republican party beyond repair. There have been others, of course. (Paul Rubio comes to mind.) But no dark star has shone as brightly in the GOP firmament as Herman Cain.

There are several reasons for Cain’s rise — not least among them the sad state of GOP presidential field for 2012. But I’ll focus on just two: (1) Herman Cain understands how white conservatives think, and (2) knows just what they want to hear from someone like him.

Herman Cain sounds most like a white Republican when he’s talking about Black voters. Cain is literally speaking their language when he says African Americans are too “brainwashed” into staying on the “Democratic plantation,” then sticks to his guns, and even goes so far as to say that Black voters are “racist” for not even considering supporting him.

Cain has cleaved to, and returned again and again to a longstanding conservative belief when it comes to African Americans and other people of color who don’t vote Republican: Those colored folks just don’t know what’s good for ‘em. It’s a simple answer, as I wrote in 2005.

It occurred to me that I’d heard the kind of stuff before, most recently in the comments resulting from a brouhaha that recently broke out about the portrayal of certain black Republicans. It’s the same basic rhetoric I’ve heard in just about every discussion I’ve been involved in over why there aren’t more black republicans. My point has always been that Republicans — like other predominantly white organizations — spend more time asking why more black people aren’t joining them than they do asking themselves why they aren’t attracting more black supporters.

In other words, they avoid the reality that the reason they don’t attract more Black supporters is because they don’t address — and aren’t seen as addressing — the needs and concerns of many in Black communities. The analysis never gets further than that because it would probably undermine their current base of power. So every discussion I’ve had ends up with the other side’s argument boiling down to this: the reason more blacks don’t support the Republican party is because they don’t know what’s good for them.

That’s the nice way of putting it. The more blunt way of putting it would be much closer to the way the conservative blogger above put it. Because they are dumb. The Blacks who don’t vote Republican are dumb

(This phenomenon isn’t limited to race, by the way. The same can apply to any predominantly homogenous organization that seeks to diversify its ranks, fails to do so, and then wonders why. Nor are liberals or progressives immune. We should this in mind when we wonder why we don’t have more support among white working-class Americans, many of whom joined the ranks of the birthers and tea partiers.)

It’s an easy out, because it doesn’t require Republicans to address their own agenda, let alone change it. It’s easier to ask “Why don’t more Blacks vote Republican?” and answer “Because they don’t know any better,” “Because they don’t know what’s good for them,” or “Because they’re brainwashed.” Case closed. It’s easy, because you don’t need to do anything else, except perhaps bemoan their failure to “wise up” and “join us.” There’s no work and no change required on your part.

Self examination, on the other hand, is hard. It’s harder to ask “How are we failing to address the concerns of fill-in-the-group effectively, so that they will naturally want to join us?”, because the answer may challenge and require you to change some of your assumptions. You have to put yourself in the position of the “Other,” and then work harder to find ways to address their concerns in the context of your values. It’s even harder because failure is then your fault — not theirs.

As Anson Asaka points out, if Republicans asked themselves the second question, they’d have to consider that maybe African Americans have some good reasons for not voting Republican.

African Americans are not brainwashed. The majority of black people support the Democratic Party because it is their interest to do so, at this point in time. Democratic administrations enacted major civil rights legislation ending Jim Crow. Democrats supported and continue to support affirmative action. Democratic presidents have appointed judges and Attorney Generals who have defended civil rights. The opposite is true for Republican administrations.

The Democrats were the first major political party to nominate an African American for President. The Democrats were the first party to appoint an African American as a Supreme Court justice. Most black elected officials are Democrats. Many African Americans hold key positions and wield substantial influence in the Democratic Party. That is not true with respect to the Republican Party.

In response to the enactment of civil rights legislation, Dixiecrats left the Democratic Party and fled to the Republican Party. To win over Southern segregationists, the Republican Party adopted the Southern strategy and became hostile to civil rights, workers rights and welfare. Instead of being the Party of Lincoln, the Republican Party became the party of Strom Thurman and Jesse Helms. In effect, the Republican Party became the new White Citizens’ Council. It is no coincidence that Republicans are at the front line defending symbols of the racist Confederate past.

This, Republicans do not want to hear. Herman Cain knows this well, and most of the time he remembers it. When he does, conservatives reward him for it. When he forgets, they remind him — quickly and forcefully. For example, only in the Republican party could Rick Perry not come under political fire for owning a hunting camp named “Niggerhead,” not change the name for decades. And only in the GOP could Herman Cain become the focus of outrage for calling the name “Niggerhead” insensitive.

So far, only one of Perry’s GOP rivals has commented on N-WordheadGate: Herman Cain. Asked yesterday about the story, Cain, the only black Republican in the race, lashed out at Perry. “Since Governor Perry has been going there for years to hunt, I think that it shows a lack of sensitivity for a long time of not taking that word off of that rock and renaming the place,” Cain said on This Week. On Fox News Sunday, Cain added that there “isn’t a more vile, negative word than the N-word and for him to leave it there as long as he did before, I hear, that they finally painted over it, is just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this country.”

Cain’s reaction is certainly understandable. Anyone could find the revelations offensive, and Cain is a black man who grew up in the segregated South. And yet, as Michael Tomasky points out today, it’s Cain, not Perry, who could be damaged the most by this story. To understand why, you have to consider that there are two things Republicans hate more than anything. One is being accused of racism, which has happened with increasing frequency since President Obama became president, and, if you ask Republicans, is never, ever justified. Two is unfair treatment by the allegedly biased mainstream media. So among Republicans, the widespread response to the Post story was not, “wow, Rick Perry messed up.” It was, “the liberal media is smearing another Republican as a racist!”

It’s in this context that the backlash has occurred. Cain wasn’t expressing reasonable grievances — he was “piling on” and legitimizing a sleazy political attack. The Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis writes this morning, “Cain’s comments were — at best — premature — and at worst, highly irresponsible. It was a cheap shot, and, perhaps a signal that Cain is willing to play the race card against a fellow Republican when it benefits him.” Over at the conservative blog Red State, Eric Erickson says the story is “a slander Herman Cain is picking up and running with as a way to get into second place.”

Cain held his tongue when the audience booed a gay soldier at a republican debate. But he was the only Republican candidate to criticize Rick Perry over (a) the name of his hunting camp and (b) his failure to change it. Big mistake. “Niggerhead” itself did little to harm Perry’s standing among GOP voters. (Immigration and Perry’s beyond-inept debate performance did that.) Calling Perry out over “Niggerhead” did a good deal of damage to Herman Cain. Bet he won’t do that again.

A Black man in the Republican party will get nowhere making any claims that race or racism is still an problem in America. We will never see a Black Republican candidate for office address race with the eloquence, honesty and clarity of then candidate Barack Obama. The conservative line is that it while it used to be a problem, it was never as big or as bad of a problem as it was made out to be. They always got along fine with their Blacks, after all. And anyway, more than enough has been done to have long ago taken care of whatever little problems remained. So, it’s all in the past now. And if some, many, or even most Blacks are still struggling? Well, it’s their own damn fault for being so lazy. Case closed. All the controversy over “Niggerhead” proves is how tough southern white guys have it these days.

The context of Cain’s remark and the backlash against it might also explain why Cain in particular has drawn little African American support, and why his candidacy would probably not boost the number of Blacks voting Republican. Flip the context, and what many African Americans see in Cain is the same thing they see when the look at the likes of Clarence Thomas — a Black man who has lived long enough, and is old enough that he ought to know better. Because they know better, and know that he really knows better, most respond to Cain with a familiar two-word dismissal: “Negro, please.”

…Some blacks like Cain have gotten a small piece of the economic pie, and have markedly increased their political reach and standing. This makes it even easier to buy Cain’s line and to get mad at those that don’t and accuse them of screaming racism whenever anything goes wrong. However, Cain knows but would never dare publicly admit the tormenting facts that countless studies, surveys, reports, and investigations, lawsuits, and court challenges, and the mountains of EEOC complaints have irrefutably documented.

Blacks are still two and three times more likely to be unemployed than whites, trapped in segregated neighborhoods, and have their kids will attend disgracefully failing, mostly segregated public schools. Young Black males and females are far more likely to be murdered, suffer HIV/AIDS affliction, to be racially profiled by police, imprisoned, placed on probation or parole, permanently barred in many states from voting because of felony convictions, much more likely to receive the death penalty especially if their victims are white, and more likely to be victims of racially motivated violence than whites. Research studies show that whites with a felony record are more likely to be hired in some places than college educated blacks.

Cain would never purse his lips to acknowledge the stark fact that middle-class blacks, like himself, who reaped the biggest gains from the civil rights struggles, often find the new suburban neighborhoods they move to re-segregated and soon look like the old neighborhoods they fled. They are ignored by cab drivers, followed by clerks in stores, left fuming at restaurants because of poor or no service, find that more and more of their sons and daughters are cut out of scholarships and student support programs at universities because of the demolition of affirmative action, and denied bank loans for their businesses and homes. Cain could easily find himself being by passed by a fearful cab driver while on his way to an important business meeting who didn’t watch Fox News and know who Cain was. In fact just a week before Cain cavalierly blew off the corrosive and shackling bars of racism that still shackle millions of blacks as “no big deal” Cain huffed at the revelation of his GOP presidential rival Rick Perry’s “Niggerhead” rock. Cain quickly corrected his memory lapse and got back on script and shrugged it off as much ado about nothing.

What Hermain Cain is doing is nothing new. It was a method of survival for generations of our ancestors, because knowing how some white people thought, telling them what they want to hear, and allowing them to believe what they wanted or needed to believe — about you, and about themselves — could make the difference between life and death. It could mean the difference between a job and survival, or no job (as recently illustrated on the big screen in The Help. At other times, papering over uncomfortable truths helped maintain the appearance of peace and order, and sustain relationships that at least looked happy on the surface. Millions of our ancestors learned these lessons and passed them down to their children. Those lessons came down through the generations, and are still learned today, because they are still necessary today.

It is also, and always has been, a way to get ahead, to “get over”, by using what you know to gain an advantage. Cain has certainly done that, going an an little known candidate to one whose name appears regularly in the media. He’s done so based in part on his strengths — he’s an effective speaker, with a simple message message that the GOP base loves — and in part on what he understands about conservatives and why it makes him useful to Republicans.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Cain has attacked Obama for his blackness, or lack thereof. At the beginning of this year, he told a group of Republicans that “they”—the liberal media—are “scared” that a “real black man might run against Barack Obama.” Likewise, in an interview with New York Magazine this summer, Cain doubled-down on his remarks, telling the magazine that Obama is not a “strong black man” in terms that he identifies with. That Cain presents himself as more blackity-black than Barack Obama is just part of his persona.

What’s striking about it all is his choice of audience. With the exception of his interview with New York Magazine, Cain saves these remarks for white, Republican audiences. I’d be shocked if this wasn’t deliberate. Conservatives hate accusations of racism and are more vocal about those than they are actual instances of discrimination against racial minorities. With his upbringing in the segregated South and an accent that shows it, Herman Cain stands as the perfect weapon against anyone who questions the racial egalitarianism of conservatives. To borrow a line I used yesterday, Cain offers “absolution from racial guilt and a unique chance to turn the tables on liberals who accuse the right of racism.”

Herman Cain is a great speaker, but that’s the reason he received a standing ovation from the crowd at the Values Voter Summit, after denying any anger over Jim Crow. Indeed, this quote—from an attendee at the summit—says it all, “I don’t give him a chance, but it would be interesting. At least, no one would call him a racist.”

Cain learned a valuable lesson when he dared criticize Rick Perry’s “insensitivity” in failing for decades to change the name of his hunting camp to something less offensive than “Niggerhead.” It’s an old lesson, and simple one: “Remember your place, boy.” It may be the key to his future success in the GOP, if he remembers the narrow role he is allowed to play, and sticks to the script.

Herman Cain knows the rules, and has always known them. His temporary lapse over “Niggerhead” was merely a refresher course, to remind him of what he already knows. For example, he may be leading the Republican pack at the moment, but we will not see Herman Cain on the stage at the end of the GOP convention, thanking his party for its faith in him and promising victory in November, and Herman Cain knows it.

Not even if he wins every primary and leads Mitt Romney in every poll from now until the last primary, will Herman Cain be the Republican nominee. Cain may be leading the pack now, in part because he’s also got a tax message that resonates deeply with the GOP base, even if it makes the Republican establishment nervous.

But Cain said himself that the last debate looked like he and Romney were the top two candidates. In another party, it might be so. But it won’t be so in the GOP. No matter how many polls he wins, Cain will never be more than a “second tier” GOP candidate. Period. And he knows it. They may not like Romney. They may not even want to elect him. But as much as conservatives like Herman Cain, they don’t want to elect him even more than they don’t want to elect Romney. Cain may be the right’s new “Black Friend,” and a great guy, but Romney — even Perry — is “acceptable” to Republicans as president in a way that a Herman Cain won’t be for a very long time to come.

Maybe Cain understands that, and isn’t running for the top of the ticket anyway. If he’s very, very lucky, and remembers his lessons well, we could witness him accepting the number 2 spot, where his job will be to support the ideas of the guy at the top of the ticket. You know, one of the white guys he’s beating out right now. (Take your pick.)

And if that day comes, Herman Cain will say it’s not about race. He’ll continue to say that throughout his term as VP, every time the media asks him. You know, as part of a news article about Vice President Cain hunting with President Perry — at “Niggerhead,” of course.

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