Herman Cain and the Sadness of Black Folks

These days, black people are trained to be wary of feeling too happy about black success. Case in point: Herman Cain.

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One answer, I suppose, is that people need to be reminded that the success of some does not mean that we have completely overcome. But: Who really thinks that people who read 300-page books, black or white, believe that if a black lawyer isn't being discriminated against, then racism is over for all black people? Which people do we genuinely suppose need this "message"?

None, I submit. What's really going on here is simply that sadness to which my friend referred. We are now trained to be wary of feeling too good about black success. Any black success: Cose generously cites a man who tells us that Barack Obama's election was a mere fluke, due to a convergence of factors such as George Bush's incompetence, John McCain's lack of drama and the economy. That is, we are to suppose that the election of a black man as president was not evidence of a revolutionary change in racial attitudes.

Remember another gloomy corrective take on Obama not long ago? It was the one that claimed whites would only have elected one of the "right kind" of black people: lightish-colored, with a top-class education and, as Sen. Reid memorably put it, able to not use "Negro dialect" when he wants to. Well, according to that analysis, Herman Cain is definitely not one of the "good" kind. He's darker, less educated and less courtly than Obama, and he couldn't sound "not black" at gunpoint.

And yet he is currently a big hit among precisely the kind of white people who didn't vote for Obama -- i.e., the legendary "out there" whites! It would seem that his being black doesn't bother them much -- and note, they cannot be under any impression that an outspokenly Republican black person is going to "lead" black America and serve as a role model.

Are they embracing him just because he allows them to disavow racism? Let's say there's some of that -- but then the same people who would make this charge are surely aware, and often say, that the whites who embraced Obama had a lot of that in them as well. Herman Cain is a black man -- and not a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner type -- being embraced by, of all people, Republicans. After all, wouldn't we expect Republicans to be swooning for another "not too black" type instead?

In other words, big bad Herman Cain, whether you agree with his politics or not, is a good story in many ways. No, I am not shilling for him; nobody who even glanced at the columns I have now been writing here for a year could possibly still truly think I am a Republican or a conservative. But Cain is evidence of, of all things, progress.

But we're not supposed to look at it that way. Now, I'm the last person to say we shouldn't work on the problems, and I try to investigate the ways that we can (again, as I write about here all the time). But something is amiss when we feel like it's our job to show the rot behind black people buying new houses, getting promotions and being elected president.

I guess, as always, we are supposed to be a sad people. Sad, isn't it?

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.

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John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The RootHe is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

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