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.
So I think the problem is that folks started with the wrong assumption, so when they see this embrace of Herman Cain, they go, "Wait a minute, that doesn't make sense."
Number two, I think Herman Cain appeals to a segment of the GOP base that has felt or feels that they do not have a voice or that they do not have a voice that represents them. The one thing that's different about Herman is that he has consistently been a voice for some of these activists — not just going back one cycle, but going back several years.
Touré: There's no contradiction between the racial politics of the GOP and the success of Herman Cain. He's the sort of black man a racist would love. He's a clown who says things racists love to hear blacks say. He denies that racism still matters.
TR: Cain makes frequent public references to his race. Has he handled being a black presidential hopeful in a way that is more palatable to GOP voters than the way Obama handled discussions of his race? If so, how?
JC: It's more palatable to reactionary voters. He's been able to be black in a way that's very performative. You have to bear in mind that Cain also sings spirituals. So yeah, the kind of black person who's, like, "Aww, shucks, I'm black in this particular kind of way" that is performative and entertaining — yeah, that's palatable to them. If he were to get up and quote Richard Wright, I don't think it would work.
MS: Some care that he talks about it, but at the end of the day, folks — black, white or otherwise — tend to be still nervous about the discussion of race, particularly when it's mixed with politics and religion, as we've just recently seen with the whole Rick Perry rock situation, as well as with Rick Perry and the pastor.
There is an uneasiness that Barack Obama's election did not solve. And as I said at the time, a lot of people were running around treating Obama's campaign and his approach to the race question as panacea, a new benchmark — that we turned a corner, that we'd become kind of race-neutral. "We're in a postracial era."
Well, that was a bunch of malarkey. Just because we weren't talking about it or a lot of folks were nodding their head in agreement to his campaign, that didn't necessarily mean that race wasn't a factor, that it still wasn't an undercurrent. It didn't mean black families weren't still having a hard time getting a loan because redlining was still a practice in certain neighborhoods … it didn't mean small-business owners weren't having a hard time getting their feet on the ground because of discriminatory policies, et cetera.
So those things didn't change or go away simply because Obama was a candidate, a nominee and eventually even president; nor have they changed since Herman Cain jumped in the race. And I think the way he handles it is obviously much more open and direct than Barack Obama did because with Barack he had to — at least by his own thinking — navigate those waters a little more carefully than Herman Cain did, for whatever reason. I happen to think he didn't have to navigate it as carefully …
Touré: [Cain] says he didn't want to make trouble during the civil rights movement. He believes if you don't have a job, it's your fault. And he's constantly throwing in little self-deprecating minstrel-ish digs like calling himself "Cornbread."
He's a black man constantly dissing black people and distancing himself from black people. Far from proving the Tea Party isn't racist, he ratifies that they are. He gives them comfort. He's a black man who seems to know his place.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor to The Root.