Herman Cain’s improbable rise to the top of Republican presidential primary polls — and the prospect that two black men, including an incumbent, could compete head-on for the White House next year — should be proof that American politics has moved beyond race. Instead, Cain’s candidacy has been marred by empty self-promotion, embarrassing miscues and renewed allegations that may have set back the cause of black conservatism.
The Cain presidential experiment coincides with a period of new gains for black conservatives. “Americans find it hard to believe we’re a diverse group,” says Florida Representative Allen West, one of two black Republicans elected to Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010. “But when you really understand the black community, it’s quite conservative.” West’s parents may have been Democrats, “but the things they raised me on — faith, education, individual responsibility — are true conservative principles. There are more African Americans out there starting to lean that way. It has nothing to do with party.”
Despite President Obama’s high approval rating among African Americans, West’s observations on social conservatism largely bear out. Nearly 80% of blacks surveyed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said they believe church is “very important” in their lives, compared with 56% of the general U.S. population. The suggestion by Cain — a Baptist minister who frequently breaks out into gospel songs — that Planned Parenthood clinics are intentionally built in black neighborhoods for “planned genocide” reflects a view once driven by Black Panthers in the 1960s that appears to be regaining traction among socially conservative blacks. The antiabortion movement is vigorously courting African Americans, funding projects with black churches and placing billboards in Chicago, Atlanta and Washington bearing messages like “Black children are an endangered species.” If you walk into nearly any black barbershop or church in the U.S., much of the rhetoric on matters of social policy and self-reliance — particularly from men of an older generation — echoes Cain’s.
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Cain’s personal story of individual triumph over daunting odds gives him incredible potential appeal. As a child, he lived in an Atlanta public-housing development, the son of a maid and a father who worked as a chauffeur, barber and janitor. In the 1960s, at the all-male, historically black Morehouse College, Cain found an intellectually challenging community that nurtured his bristling confidence. “You can always tell a Morehouse man,” the saying goes. “But you can’t tell him much.” That confidence served Cain well as one of corporate America’s black pioneers, and by his early 40s, he was named CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. “Vintage Morehouse,” was how Michael Lomax, CEO of the United Negro College Fund, recently described Cain’s audacity to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
This is also a moment in which black conservatism has become idolized by some white Republicans, who widely believe Obama’s race played a crucial role in his 2008 campaign’s success. “To become a black Republican, you don’t roll in it. You are not going with the flow. You have fought against probably your family members, probably your neighbors. You have thought everything out, and that’s why we have very impressive black people in our party,” conservative provocateur Ann Coulter said on Fox News last week. “That’s why our blacks are so much better than their blacks.”
Paradoxically, many conservatives who have long opposed affirmative-action programs, and the invocation of race in politics, are now using starkly racialized terms to defend Cain against sexual-harassment claims. Last week, a political-action committee supporting Cain released an ad dubbing the claims “a high-tech lynching,” the same term used by Clarence Thomas during his charged 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings. “Liberals … detest conservative blacks,” Coulter said on Fox News. “If you are a conservative black, they will believe the most horrible sexualized fantasies of these white women feminists.” On Monday, of course, Sharon Bialek, a white woman, became the first accuser to publicly make allegations against Cain.
Cain often insists that race has little impact on his candidacy and that Republican critiques of Obama are driven by “bad policy,” not racism. But at other moments, Cain has skillfully employed race, playing to largely white Tea Party audiences that chafe at the suggestion that their movement is racist with a political act bordering on minstrelsy. “This many white people can’t pretend that they like me,” he said at the National Press Club last week. “Call me black walnut,” he told a Tennessee crowd earlier this year. “It’s an odd co-opting of identity politics,” observes Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of Princeton University’s Center for African-American Studies.
Allen West, hardly a stranger to strong opinions on race and partisan politics — earlier this summer, the Congressional Black Caucus’ sole Republican member called the Democratic Party a “21st century plantation” for black voters — is convinced that Cain’s candidacy will buoy black conservatism. But the new round of sexual-harassment allegations and gaffes belie that argument. American politics has become a reality show, and Cain’s campaign is simply the moment’s biggest act.