"It's really about blacks and Hispanics getting uppity."
"It's a high-tech lynching."
"What's next, folks? A cartoon on MSNBC showing Herman Cain with huge lips eating a watermelon?"
Reading these quotes would make you think you were eavesdropping on a conversation among liberals. Charges of racism, "uppity" Negroes being punished for their arrogance and racist caricatures are usually the stuff of conversation on Tom Joyner's radio show. But no! Yesterday's flurry of race cards was played by some of the leading figures in American conservatism.
It was their collective response to the Politico.com report that GOP front-runner Herman Cain had settled two sexual harassment lawsuits when he headed the National Restaurant Association, a lobbying group for the food industry, in the 1990s. Cain gave inconsistent answers to questions raised by the article throughout the day, feeding the media frenzy about the latest disclosure.
First he brushed off questions about the charges, and then he admitted that the organization had settled with two women who had accused him of improper language and gestures. He denied knowledge of a settlement, then admitted that there had been a payoff. Throughout, Cain strongly denied that he ever engaged in sexual harassment.
It was all red meat for a news media baffled by Cain's rise to the top of the GOP presidential pool. But it set off a furor among conservatives who saw Cain and other conservative minorities as victims of the all-powerful liberal media. Rush Limbaugh compared Cain's problems to those of Marco Rubio, the U.S. senator from Florida whose frequently told story of his family fleeing Castro turned out to be untrue: Apparently the Rubios left Cuba several years before Castro came to power.
In a 12-minute exposition on the subject, Limbaugh called the reporting on Cain a "hit job." "Anything good that happens to any black or Hispanic in American politics can only happen via the Democrat Party. If it happens elsewhere, we’re going to destroy those people a la Clarence Thomas," he said. Of course, this is the same Limbaugh who once played a tune called "Barack the Magic Negro." And Limbaugh has himself called the president "uppity."
Ann Coulter evoked the Clarence Thomas parallel when she dredged up the famous phrase from his nomination hearings 20 years ago. At that time it was Thomas who made the statement that effectively neutralized questions about inappropriate sexual conduct raised by attorney Anita Hill. This is the same Ann Coulter who has called the Rev. Al Sharpton a "fat, race-baiting black man" and who defended the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens as being unfairly accused of racism.
Conservative Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center turned to the "plantation" analogy that Cain himself has used in complaining that black Americans have been "brainwashed" into not being open-minded toward Republicans: "In the eyes of the liberal media, Herman Cain is just another uppity black American who has had the audacity to leave the liberal plantation. So they must destroy him, just as they tried destroying Clarence Thomas."
The real point of these attacks, of course, is not a sudden surge of conservative sensitivity about racism against blacks, but sentiment against the "liberal media." Bozell pointed out that Politico reporter Ken Vogel once worked for George Soros, the liberal billionaire bête noire of conservatism. "The liberal media need to wake up and deal with the fact that successful, black Americans can be conservative," he wrote. "They are going insane realizing he might one day be President, too. "
In the current conservative dialogue, African Americans will hear echos of their own complaints about the way President Obama has been treated. How many black commentators have suggested that the rage of some conservatives toward the president — via the Tea Party or the Birthers — is triggered by an inability to accept the legitimacy of a black man as the nation's leader?
Even if you disagree with Cain's views, as most African Americans appear to up to now, it's important to look closely at the coverage of this scandal and ask whether Cain has been treated fairly. Did the charges of misbehavior rise to such a level that Politico would have done the story if Cain were white? After all, sexual harassment is an emotionally charged issue — and as some conservatives have pointed out, the coverage ties into stereotypes about oversexed black men.
If I were an editor at Politico, I would set a higher bar for the story because of the risk of becoming the target of conservative ire — as was the case here. It can be argued that when you're a presidential candidate, your past is fair play, even if you settled with your accusers. But a messenger of bad news has to be especially careful. Politico's Vogel, appearing on The Ed Show on MSNBC, said that the publication had been meticulous in its reporting. So far no mistakes have been pointed out.
But it is important to note that Cain himself has not invoked race in his response to the sexual harassment issue. While earlier this year he declared that he was prepared for "a high-tech lynching" in response to his candidacy, he has not uttered the phrase or suggested that race had anything to do with Politico's story or his current dilemma. Instead, the charges of racism have come from conservatives who are usually quick to dismiss such charges as liberal whining. To mix metaphors, it seems that when it comes to being colorblind, it depends on whose foot the shoe is on.
Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's managing editor.