John McWhorter is right about one thing. Herman Cain "is evidence of, of all things, progress."
McWhorter — iconoclast, The Root columnist and widely regarded author of the best-sellers Losing the Race and Winning the Race — argued this week in "Herman Cain and the Sadness of Black Folks" that the failure of black observers to give Cain his due is just one example on a long list of failures to acknowledge black progress.
And that's one thing McWhorter is not right about at all. No one is wary of Cain's blackness, his corporate success or his Republicanism. They're wary about Cain's candidacy — and rightly so.
Cain embodies the American dream: He's a chauffeur's son who became a Burger King exec, the CEO of Godfather's Pizza, a board member of the Kansas City Fed and a conservative talk-radio hero on the way to becoming the first African American to grab a meaningful share of early polling support in a Republican presidential primary. And he's running to unseat a Democratic black president in a world where nine out of 10 African Americans vote Democratic. If you care at all about seeing a diverse range of political views expressed in American political life, then there's no way you can't describe Cain's rise as progress.
Yet the fact that Cain hasn't caught on with most of the black electorate is not, as McWhorter suggests, an indicator that black folks are "trained to be wary of feeling too good about black success" or that they're "perpetually sad" about the future prospect of being black in America.
So far, at least, black voters just aren't into Cain.
After taking the New York Times' Charles Blow to task for ascribing the trend of black migration back to the South to frustration with excessive stop-and-frisks by the NYPD, then calling out Ellis Cose for paying mere "lip service" to black folks getting beyond "old-style grievance" toward whites in his book The End of Anger, McWhorter oddly wheels around to lamenting that although Cain's campaign "is a good story in many ways," in his view, conventional wisdom says "we're not supposed to look at it that way." Says who?
People aren't skeptical of Cain because they think that African Americans have to stay tethered to what Cain describes as the "Democrat plantation." They're skeptical because Cain works so much harder to cultivate the support of the real-life Joe the Plumber — who's featured in Cain's campaign-launch video — than he does to appeal to Ta-Nehisi Coates' fictional African-American analogue: "Rashid the Barber."
Cain's platform, after all, starts out fine. He's the only candidate for the Fair Tax — a plan to replace federal income taxes with a flat consumption tax and an idea worth considering. He also wants to lower capital gains taxes — presumably so that hedge fund managers can get that extra take-home pay they so desperately need.
But after that? Cain would give a loyalty test to any Muslim American who wants to serve in his administration. He's also joined forces with Princeton professor Cornel West and Minister Louis Farrakhan to question President Barack Obama's bona fides as a "real black man."
And on Afghanistan? Cain says, "You don't need to have foreign policy experience to know who your friends and who your enemies are." Compare that stance with Obama's promise in 2008 that "we will kill bin Laden, we will crush al-Qaida." For better or for worse, he has done exactly that.
Cain's views simply aren't winning ones. And most black voters are negatively disposed toward him because of those views — not because of blind loyalty to Obama or to Democrats.
You can call it progress that a portion of the white electorate is backing Cain because, as McWhorter says, "they cannot be under any impression that an outspokenly Republican black person is going to 'lead' black America and serve as a role model." But actually, as the New Republic's Ed Kilgore explains, "Cain has become not a role model but an implicit living rebuke to his fellow African-Americans, who have, in the imaginations of many white conservatives," let liberals lead them around by the nose.
Which, of course, conservatives of any color are entitled to believe. But it's no longer good enough to be the I'm-not-like-those-other-blacks candidate and call that progress. And that's mostly what Cain is selling.
Progress would look like one candidate — black, white or otherwise — criticizing another candidate — black, white or otherwise — on the issues of the day: wars, debt and health care. Or at least if one black candidate — Cain — said he was proud that Obama became the first black president, but that as the second black president, he thinks he can do a better job.
That would be progress. But that hasn't happened.
There's still a discussion to be had about the meaning of Cain's candidacy. Maybe he's a flash in the pan. Maybe he represents the beginning of a slow, steady migration of African Americans to the Republican Party. And maybe that's a good thing. But whatever it is, it starts with real talk about issues facing real Americans — black, white or otherwise. It doesn't start with one guy telling the other that he's not a "real black man."
That's just, you know, perpetually sad.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.