Herman Cain And The Politics Of Race

Republicans are the party of Lincoln, but for the past several decades they haven’t been the party of the people Lincoln freed. The overwhelming majority of black voters lean Democratic and that, says black Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, can only be explained by one thing: groupthink.

“Many African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view,” Cain told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

Cain and his conservatism have been riding high in the polls — tying with, and in some cases, outdistancing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumed eventual nominee. Cain has a devoted following in the Tea Party wing of the GOP. At the recent Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s two-day conference in Washington, D.C., he got a roar of approval when he introduced himself as “the Koch brothers’ brother from another mother.” Charles and David Koch are multibillionaires who have funded myriad right-wing causes in recent years. One of their favorite ones lately has been Cain.

Jack E. White, a writer and political analyst who is a frequent contributor to the black website TheRoot.com, says Cain is attractive to conservative white voters because “he tells them what they want to hear about blacks, and in turn, they embrace him and say, ‘See? We’re not racist.'”

Cain has said poor people are poor because they want to be, and says that while racism may still exist, it is only marginally relevant in the 21st Century. His public appearances are often sprinkled with cheerful, folksy expressions and spontaneous outbursts of gospel songs — performances White says veer toward modern minstrelsy.

The Appeal of a Regular Kind of Guy

But that may, in part, be why Tea Partiers are comfortable with Cain.

“He’s more earthy, down-homey, regular — not uppity,” says Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, whose latest book is The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency.” That “not-uppity” part, Kennedy says “is the contrast with President Obama.” Obama’s dual Ivy League degrees, his obvious relish for intellectual conversations and his vacations on estates in Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii are sometimes off-putting for white voters who see themselves as “regular” people.

Cain himself likes to point out that of the two, he is the “authentic” black man. Despite his wealth, he’s as regular as can be. His parents, he said, started from nothing, and made sure he and his brother went to college. He was raised with the same ethos echoed in millions of black households since emancipation: Work hard. Save your money. Get as much education as you can, and make sure your children do, too.

Despite that, Cain has had little traction with black voters. Kennedy says that’s because “black people know if Herman Cain had his way, their lives would be diminished. They intuit that Herman Cain’s policies are against their interests.”

So Cain is lauded by his conservative white supporters because he is able to voice their beliefs for them.

Vincent Hutchings, who studies the impact of race on politics and political campaigns at the University of Michigan, says Cain is a unique amalgam of things, and believes another kind of black Republican would not have gotten conservative support.

“They wouldn’t have done that with, say, the equivalent of Colin Powell. He was seen as a moderate to liberal Republican. He was also black, but he wouldn’t have served the ideological purposes of that faction,” Hutchings says. (And there was that “uppity” problem again — being mentored by the Rockefellers and the George H.W. Bushes would have been more of a liability than an asset in the GOP’s more conservative rebirth.)

Steadfast Support — Even Amid Storm

So as black voters steer clear of supporting Cain, many white ones continue to embrace him — even in the face of potential scandal. When two women came forward to publicly accuse Cain of sexual harassment, his poll numbers went up. Americans for Herman Cain produced an ad that linked Cain’s current predicament to a similar one Clarence Thomas endured 20 years ago, when he was being nominated to the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas’ bitter, now-famous denunciation of the “high-tech lynching” he felt his confirmation hearings had become became the crescendo of the Cain ad. (The tag line before the fade:” Don’t let the left do it again.”)

Suddenly, race was relevant.

“Of course, as soon as he gets into trouble, race, race, race, race, race,” Harvard’s Kennedy notes, dryly.

Cain has emphatically denied the harassment charges, and so far, they seem not to have hurt him at the polls. (Political observers say it usually takes two weeks if any downward trajectory is going to be felt.) CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo was loudly booed when in the Rochester, Mich., debate on Wednesday, she asked Cain whether he thought he had the character to be president. (His answer: “The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations.”)

The delicate matter that Cain’s accusers so far have been two blonde women would have been a huge problem 50 years ago. Some observers say the fact that much of Cain’s steadfast support has come from parts of the country that have often been hostile to interracial relations might point to a certain evolution on our part.

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