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.


"Oh, I think we'll always be a sad people," a black woman said to me in 2001. She was very smart, very well-informed. And that remark seemed utterly ordinary to her. It didn't to me. Why would any people always be sad? Or, why would a people willingly embrace such a prediction?

I think of her whenever I see how gloomily we are trained to see just about anything that happens to -- or for -- black people in this country. We must always stare at the cloud rather than the silver lining, obsess over the fly in the ointment. It looks like my friend was right about us being perpetually sad.

I wish she wasn't, because it isn't the only way of grappling with challenge. In 1957, when legendary black contralto Marian Anderson was the subject of a See It Now documentary special, the Little Rock schoolhouse episode happened to occur during filming. The producers of the special used the contrast between this event and Anderson's successful tour in Asia as a "hook." They even asked Anderson about Little Rock -- and she looked slightly perplexed that her opinion would be part of the proceedings.

A black person wrote a response, complaining that -- get this -- the special was wrong in mentioning Little Rock but nothing about "the many of our race who are on top."

What worries me is how unlikely that would be today from so many of our smartest chroniclers, who consider their job to be to remind America eternally of societal racism, to the point of spinning stories in the direction that most writers in 1957 would have seen as good news.

Why have so many been so hell-bent on painting it as sad that so many black people are moving back down South? Just 40 years ago, most black people could barely buy houses outside of the ghetto, but now thousands of families are picking up stakes and happily moving to states where life will be cheaper and more comfortable.

But all some can see in this is a repeat of the Great Migration, as if these people were riding the rails with sacks on their backs, escaping Jim Crow. Black writers are not the only ones pulling this: Walter Russell Mead's take, titled "Black and Blue," has us "fleeing" the North, the idea being that the failure of "social policy to create an environment which works for Blacks is the most devastating possible indictment of the 20th-century liberal enterprise in the United States." What, pray tell, is "an environment for Blacks"?

Charles Blow's read was also almost strangely off, claiming on the basis of no evidence that black New Yorkers are moving in part to get away from excessive stop-and-frisks. I recently listened to an NPR story on this topic where the interviewers felt beholden to examine whether racism played a part in New Yorkers moving away, despite the jolly interviewee and callers-in barely knowing what she was talking about.

Why does it have to be a suspicious, loaded event (call it Moving While Black) when a lot of black people move -- smiling? A second question: If young, successful blacks see racism as playing less of a role in their lives than their parents or grandparents did, then why must our main lesson from this be that America is not postracial, and that black America overall continues to have serious problems?

That is the message of Ellis Cose's new book The End of Anger, which pays lip service to getting past the old-style grievance against "whitey," but is ultimately about how angry we should all stay because of racism in the Tea Party, the shunting of subprime loans to black communities and the fact that because of the economy, middle-class blacks are often not making as much money as their parents.