There’s More Than One Way to Insult Blacks

Herman Cain's "brainwashed" comment is not as insidious as charges of abandoning the race.


Herman Cain’s claim that black people who vote Democratic are “brainwashed” was hardly gracious.

It is true, one must admit, that our allegiance, so fervent, to one party is not the healthiest thing, whether it’s been a matter of “brainwashing” or not. As long as Democrats don’t have to work for our vote, they won’t work for us — even when they’re black, we’ve seen, especially of late. And as long as Republicans feel that they can’t get much of our vote, they have no reason to work for us, either. I met Rick Santorum once; he told me that overtly.

But still, “brainwashed” — that’s counterproductive. Arrogant, even. If we all understand that — and the blog chatter about it suggests that we do — then Cain’s kind of comment sheds some light on a different one often made by more educated sorts than he. The comment I refer to is generally treated as enlightened wisdom. Yet it’s actually as mean, in its way, as Cain’s.

I refer to the notion that middle-class black families who left ghettos for the suburbs after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were race traitors, holding their noses and fleeing from their poor brethren and abandoning them to a miserable existence deprived of role models.

The scholars who have helped to imprint this idea — such as Harvard’s William Julius Wilson, Yale’s Elijah Anderson and more recently Georgetown’s Sheryll Cashin — intend this historical interpretation as a distraction from a tendency to think of the black poor as inherently “pathological.” And it has worked to an extent. The idea that black inner cities are the way they are because doctors and lawyers no longer live next door to poor people is passed along among people of all walks.

One problem with this theory, however, is that it suggests that inner cities can improve only if doctors and lawyers come back to live in the hood as a gesture of solidarity. This will never happen to any significant degree, which leaves us where we started. With all of the vigilance about the role that racism plays in black problems, few notice how much more pernicious the idea is that black poor people cannot live together peacefully.

However, in terms of the comparison with Cain’s comment, the key offense in this interpretation of modern black history is that it entails a sometimes almost abusive portrait of humble middle-class blacks in the 1960s and ’70s as elitist turncoats.

“Ostensibly they are motivated by concern about crime, drugs, poor public schools, run-down and crowded housing and social status,” Anderson says of middle-class blacks moving out, “but for many, there may be a deep emotional desire to get as far as possible from poorer blacks.” This kind of statement is a common refrain among writers of this sentiment. At times, this kind of work is so dismissive of middle-class blacks’ housing decisions that it sounds almost as if it were written by old-time bigoted Southerners who wanted the darkies to know their “place.”