Don't tell anyone, but I'm envious of black conservatives.
They can see America through a visor that was clouded for me many years ago. To them, this is a nation of opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard enough. I believe that, too, but experience has taught me that such a concept must be spoken with a wink, or written with an asterisk.
On the surface they are right, that this is the wealthiest, most prosperous society in the history of civilization and that we're damn lucky to be in a nation where at least our social position is fluid and potentially mobile — a nation where we can pretty much do as we please if we conform to certain rules … and racism is only in your head.
After the things I've witnessed and experienced, I can't take that position. But I envy the ability to be so blasé about race in America, as if closing one's eyes eliminates the problem.
On the other hand, we've got people like Herman Cain, an idealist who thinks that the unemployed are in their situations because they just don't try hard enough, that blacks are "brainwashed into not being open-minded" about conservative positions and that racism doesn't hold blacks back (using himself as an example), and who believes that God told him to run for president, sort of like the way God told Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.
And stuff like that is pretty much where the envy stops.
Yeah, as I get older, I find myself getting more conservative about things; for example, I think there's too much government in the hood (that's another conversation). But I take a look at what is now the face of black conservatism, and it's no longer someone like Thomas Sowell or John McWhorter, with whom I would likely disagree but with whom I'd at least be able to have an enlightening conversation.
Instead, somehow Cain, with his populist charisma, has managed to get conservatives in general to anoint him the Apostle of the Negro Right. In doing that, he's surprisingly ahead of the other contenders for the Republican nomination. How does he do it?
The same way pseudo-populists have been winning elections for the past two centuries: He tells people what they want to hear.
His 999 tax plan is simple-sounding enough that Mr. John Q. Average can feel secure in it because he doesn't think he needs to do the math, thus not realizing that he could potentially pay more than he currently pays.
Cain sees waterboarding as an "enhanced interrogation technique" and homosexuality as a "choice," flip-flops on abortion depending on the day of the week and somehow doesn't realize that China has nuclear weapons.
Absolute sweet music to an ideological Tea Party-esque Republican body politic.
It helps that Cain comes off as that gruff school principal whose toughness you appreciated 20 years after graduation. That exterior wears no particular color. But Cain adds to that an ability to simplify his message so easily without making himself look ignorant — at least up front — the way Michele Bachmann does, or phony the way Mitt Romney does, or careless the way Rick Perry does or autocratic the way Newt Gingrich does.
So isn't that a good thing? Not really. One of the things history has taught us is that people who can appeal to masses but who avoid the scrutiny of individuals are dangerous.
To paraphrase Men in Black, individuals are smart because they are discerning, but people — meaning groups — are fearful, nervous and easily manipulated. That, to me, explains why Cain is doing so well in the polls. People don't need to look through a candidate's position with a fine-tooth comb. They just need to believe that he will kick the ass of their collective problem, namely this shitty economy.
The fact that as many as four women have accused him of sexual harassment may not even matter because he doesn't have the entire political opposition swooping down to demonize him the way the Republicans did to Bill Clinton.
Does any of this mean he'll be president come January 2013? Not at all. We're still a year out from the election, and anything can happen between now and Election Day. But so far, because of everything I've talked about, Cain has managed to avoid the landmines and bear traps of conservative opinion by simply being oblivious to the nonsensical nature of the things he says.
Instead, he appears, more than any other GOP candidate, to be the anti-Obama: clearly black, but with a "blacks complain too much" attitude about race; independently wealthy, but somehow appealing to people who are in foreclosure; willing to thump his chest to the world, while knowing virtually nothing about foreign policy.
And he gets away with all of it.
So this is why my envy of black conservatives ends where Herman Cain begins. They can hold high the ideals of what America should be. But then they've got to deal with the next cringe-worthy thing Cain says and bear his cross, because he now represents all of them.
In this case, black conservatives can't whisper that "Please don't be black" prayer so many of us mumble when we hear of a crime committed without knowing the complexion of the alleged perpetrator. Cain and all his foibles are plain, and if he sinks, they sink with him.
Madison Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and Web journalist. Follow him on Twitter.