Wait, Isn't the Right Supposed to Be Racist?

Experts like Touré, Michael Steele and Jelani Cobb explain the GOP love for Herman Cain.


As sexual harassment allegations against black Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain surfaced this week, conservative supporters rallied to his defense. Rush Limbaugh, who's famous for nothing if not his racist radio rants, has taken up for the gospel-singing, former Godfather's Pizza CEO who's leading in the GOP polls. Conservatives who would normally balk at any allegation of racism don't seem put off in the least by the assertion, made by Cain's PAC, that the attacks on him represent a Clarence Thomas-esque "high-tech lynching."

This seemingly unconditional embrace of Cain -- who brags that his ancestors were slaves, wants to be called "black American" instead of "African American" and has nicknamed himself "the Black Walnut" -- isn't new: He won the Florida straw poll and is neck and neck with Mitt Romney in Iowa. Republicans praise his plain-speaking debate style and call him "genuine."

And it's not just middle-of-the-road, fiscal conservative types who adore him. He's getting love from the people farthest to the right: the Tea Party. Yes, the very same ones who were long ago dismissed as being motivated by racism by everyone from Morgan Freeman, an NPR executive and the NAACP in an official report to everyday Americans appalled by the group's infamous n-word-peppered signage.

So were we all wrong? CNN recently reported that Cain's race is "not as big an issue" as Barack Obama's was. Does this support for Cain mean that we've unfairly accused Tea Party types of being uncomfortable with -- if not outraged by -- the idea of a black man running the country? 

To put things in perspective, The Root chatted with Rutgers University history professor and author Jelani Cobb, cultural critic and author of Who's Afraid of Post Blackness? Touré and former RNC Chairman Michael Steele. 

Spoiler alert: There's no consensus when it comes to whether Cain's candidacy is a referendum on his supporters' attitudes toward race. The only thing that's settled is that his unexpected success -- and the daily, racialized headlines it generates -- continues to force a more nuanced conversation about the relationship between color and politics.

The Root: How do we square the widespread perception that racism and racial anxiety have fueled many of the attacks from the right on President Obama with the fact that Cain is doing so well?

Jelani Cobb: I don't think Cain is acceptable to them. What Cain is doing that is acceptable to them has to do with the "some of my best friends are black" argument. If you recall, when Donald Trump launching that jihad about Barack Obama, he trotted out the Apprentice winner to say he couldn't be racist because he had this brother win on The Apprentice.

It's that same kind of cynical thing that's at play with Herman Cain. He offers them an insurance policy. Things that other people would consider racist, he brushes off.  Even with something absurd, like retracting his statement that the name of Rick Perry's rock was insensitive. So not even the word "nigger" is racist at this point ...

Michael Steele: I think the presumption is incorrect to begin with ... There's been no evidence [that the Tea Party is racist]. There's been no hard and fast documentation of that. You know, taking a sign that someone's holding at an event and saying the entire movement is racist isn't legitimate -- just as taking someone holding a sign at Occupy Wall Street and saying that represents the attitude of everyone there wouldn't be legitimate.