Herman Cain And The Politics Of Race

Nov 10, 2011
Originally published on November 11, 2011 9:55 am

Republicans are the party of Lincoln, but for the past several decades they haven't been the party of the people Lincoln freed. The overwhelming majority of black voters lean Democratic, and that, says black Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, can only be explained by one thing: groupthink.

"Many African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view," Cain told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

Cain and his conservatism have been riding high in the polls — tying with, and in some cases outdistancing, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the one-time frontrunner in the Republican race.

Cain has a devoted following in the Tea Party wing of the GOP. At the recent Americans for Prosperity Foundation's two-day conference in Washington, D.C., he got a roar of approval when he introduced himself as "the Koch brothers' brother from another mother." Charles and David Koch are multibillionaires who have funded myriad right-wing causes in recent years. One of their favorite ones lately has been Cain.

Jack E. White, a writer and political analyst who is a frequent contributor to the black website TheRoot.com, says Cain is attractive to conservative white voters because "he tells them what they want to hear about blacks, and in turn, they embrace him and say, 'See? That proves we're not racist.' "

Cain has said poor people are poor because they want to be, and says that while racism may still exist, it is only marginally relevant in the 21st century. His public appearances are often sprinkled with cheerful, folksy expressions and spontaneous outbursts of gospel songs.

"He's even willing to be a minstrel for them," White says, "referring to himself in some terms as cornbread, and referring to his father speaking ungrammatically, saying things like, 'I does not care ...' "

The Appeal Of A Regular Kind Of Guy

But that may, in part, be why Tea Partiers are comfortable with Cain.

"He's more earthy, down-homey, regular — not uppity," says Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, whose latest book is The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency. Kennedy contrasts Cain's image and background with President Obama, whose dual Ivy League degrees, obvious relish for intellectual conversations, and vacations on estates in Martha's Vineyard and Hawaii are sometimes off-putting for white voters who see themselves as "regular" people.

Cain himself likes to point out that of the two, he is the "authentic" black man — that, despite his wealth, he's as regular as can be. His parents, he said, started from nothing, and made sure he and his brother went to college. He was raised with the same ethos echoed in millions of black households since emancipation: Work hard. Save your money. Get as much education as you can, and make sure your children do, too.

Despite that, Cain has had little traction with black voters. Kennedy says that's because "black people know if Herman Cain had his way, their lives would be diminished. They intuit that Herman Cain's policies are against their interests."

Not A Colin Powell Republican

Vincent Hutchings, who studies the impact of race on politics and political campaigns at the University of Michigan, says Cain is a unique amalgam of things, and believes another kind of black Republican would not have gotten conservative support.

"They wouldn't have done this with, say, the equivalent of Colin Powell," Hutchings says. "Colin Powell was seen as a moderate to liberal Republican. He was also black, but he wouldn't have served the ideological purposes of that faction."

So, many white conservatives continue to embrace Cain — even in the face of recent sexual harassment allegations — while black voters steer clear.

Harvard's Kennedy says many black Americans found a recent ad run by Cain supporters to be particularly offensive. In it, Americans for Herman Cain compare then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas' angry statement about harassment charges he faced in 1991 to Cain's current predicament. Thomas' denunciation of what he called a "high-tech lynching" became the crescendo of the Cain ad. The tag line before the fade: "Don't let the left do it again."

Suddenly, race was relevant.

"Of course, as soon as he gets into trouble, race, race, race, race, race," Kennedy notes, dryly.

He adds, "That analogy is one that rubs a lot of black people the wrong way, because if you're lynched, you don't get to talk about it."

Cain has emphatically denied the harassment charges, and so far, they seem not to have hurt him at the polls. CNBC's Maria Bartiromo was loudly booed at Wednesday's debate in Rochester, Mich., after she asked Cain whether he thinks he has the character to be president. His answer: "The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations."

So far, Cain still enjoys steadfast support from his white conservative base, despite publicly being accused of sexual harassment by two white women. That he didn't risk the same fate as Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, is for many an odd measure of racial progress.

Hutchings, the Michigan professor, says the harassment charges may cause a drop in his support eventually, but for now, Cain is still able.

"I would be loathe to write off Herman Cain at this point," Hutchings says. "He may be crazy, but he's crazy like a fox."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of the text published with this story did not include changes that had been made during the editing process. The text was subsequently revised to reflect those edits.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Herman Cain's supporters may be sticking by him, but he's not been able to break through with one group - black voters. Polls show his candidacy has very little support among African-Americans. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this story about Herman Cain and the politics of race.

HERMAN CAIN: My father walked off of a farm in Arlington, Tennessee at the age of 18 with just the clothes on his back.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: When he tells his story, Herman Cain says a lot of the same things that have been preached in millions of black families since, well, Emancipation: work hard, save your money, get as much education as you can and make sure your children do, too. Despite that, he's gotten scant traction with black voters. Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy has written about race in politics and says that's not a huge surprise.

RANDALL KENNEDY: Black people know that if Herman Cain had his way, their lives would be diminished. And they intuit that Herman Cain's policies are against their interests.

BATES: Candidate Cain has said poor people are poor because they want to be, and has indicated that racism, if not a thing of the past, is of marginal importance in the 21st Century.

KAREN GRIGSY BATES, BYLINE: Kennedy says many black Americans find a recent ad run by Cain supporters to be particularly offensive. In it, Americans for Herman Cain compare then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas' angry statement about sexual harassment charges he faced in 1991 to Cain's current predicament.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

CAIN: This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.

JACK WHITE: That analogy is one that rubs a lot of black people the wrong way because, frankly, if you're lynched, you don't get to talk about it.

BATES: Jack White writes political analysis for TheRoot.com. He believes Cain and his white supporters have struck a bargain.

WHITE: Basically, Herman Cain tells them what they want to hear about blacks, and in turn, they embrace him and say, see, that proves we aren't racist. He's even willing to be a minstrel for them, referring to himself sometimes as cornbread, or quoting his father as speaking ungrammatically, as saying, you know, things like I does not care.

BATES: It works well with some voters. Recently, Cain shared this revelation with ecstatic crowds at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation conference in Washington, D.C. It was funded by Cain's biggest supporters: the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, Charles and David.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CAIN: This may be a breaking news announcement for the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CAIN: I am the Koch brothers' brother from another mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND LAUGHTER)

BATES: Pundit Ann Coulter told Fox News that Cain and other black Republicans have to be smarter and tougher than most Democratic-leaning blacks, because they're swimming against community opinion, often at the cost of personal goodwill.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

ANN COULTER: I mean, that's why our blacks are so much better than their blacks.

BATES: Observations like that may be why their blacks are so few in number. Cain does have black supporters, like Niger Innis and Alveda King, both descended from civil rights icons. But the numbers aren't huge. When asked why more blacks didn't join the Republican Party, Cain had a ready explanation.

CAIN: Because many African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view.

BATES: Cain has proudly described himself as authentically black, descended from slaves, able to speak in homey dialect, proud of his Southern roots. He likes contrasting himself to the president, who is black, but - he seems to imply - not as black.

University of Michigan Professor Vincent Hutchings studies the impact of race on political parties and campaigns. He says being Republican, even conservative, isn't enough for many white voters. They want to support a specific kind of black candidate.

VINCENT HUTCHINGS: They wouldn't have done this with, say, the equivalent of Colin Powell, right? So Colin Powell was seen as a moderate-to-liberal Republican. And he was also black, but he wouldn't have served the ideological purposes of that faction.

BATES: Cain tells the crowds who come to see him he is the real black deal, which may explain why - despite publicly being accused of sexual harassment by two white women so far - Herman Cain still enjoys steadfast support from his white conservative base. That he didn't risk the same fate as Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, is, for many, an odd measure of racial progress.

Michigan Professor Vince Hutchings says the harassment charges may cause a drop in his support eventually, but for now, Cain is still able.

HUTCHINGS: I would be loath to write off Herman Cain at this point. He may be crazy, but he's crazy like a fox.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.