I have watched the Herman Cain 2012 campaign video repeatedly. It is a four-minute glimpse into one of the least understood aspects of American political life: black conservatism. The initial impulse among many Democrats (and frankly most Republicans) is to dismiss Cain’s bid for the presidency as quixotic and a bit incomprehensible. I understand that impulse. I do not think Herman Cain will secure the GOP nomination for the US presidency. I understand why devoting media coverage to a unlikely campaign can seem wasteful and distracting, but the Cain campaign video, and potentially the campaign itself, is a bit Americana performance art worth understanding.
Here are just a few things I love about Herman Cain… and by love I mean that I find them fascinating and worthy of study.
(1) Cain’s campaign is a reminder that black political ideas are complex and multi-layered.
I became fascinated with the political history and contemporary manifestations of black conservatism while writing my first book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. In it I argue that it is ahistiorical to dismiss black conservatives as race traitors laboring under self-serving, false ideology. Conservatism has deep roots among African-Americans. It appeals to self-help, views the state as overly intrusive, and believes free markets are non-discriminatory. Black conservatism stresses that political strategies are inferior to efforts for economic empowerment for addressing racial inequality. These tenets echo Tea Party rhetoric, but among black Americans this form of conservatism is typically, especially racial.
The core theme of black conservatism is a theory of racial self-uplift. Black conservatism, unlike its white counterpart does not ignore racial inequality or depend on racial animus. Black conservatism justifies itself as a strategy for creating racial equality by rejecting policies that create a perception of underserved benefits that diminish the honor of black people. Black conservatism acknowledges the existence of past discriminatory practices but argues that current inequalities result more from behavioral pathologies—such as unwed motherhood, drug addiction and hip-hop culture—than from acts of racism. Thus it concludes that African-Americans must fortify their moral and economic strength in order to compete in the United States.
Although only a tiny fraction (fewer than 10 percent) of black people identify with or cast votes for the Republican Party, these underlying tenets of conservatism are widely shared to varying degrees among African-Americans. And it is those aspects of conservatism that I see Cain tapping in his nascent, underdog campaign. These aspects of political reasoning are as important and as indigenous to black political cultural life as are black progressive demands for race-conscious, government-based strategies to address inequality. Indeed, I would argue that President Obama’s own strategic deployment of racial conservatism—in his father’s day speeches that demand black male accountability for example—are part of what boost his popularity among many black Democrats who nonetheless understand themselves as socially conservative.
I make this point about the indigenous nature of black conservatism, because I don’t want us to miss that Herman Cain is making some interesting authenticity claims in his campaign.
(2) Cain’s campaign is “keeping it real.”
Log onto Herman Cain’s 2012 campaign website and you’ll find these words “Let’s Get Real.” Getting real has an interesting double meaning that reflects the Tea Party crowd but also draws on a now-dated black youth phraseology emphasizing the importance of racial authenticity. In Cain’s campaign video he reminds us that his grandparents were slaves and declares that he is now running for president: “Isn’t America great?!” Cain is doing two things here. He is extolling American triumphalism and suggesting that the nation has conquered its ugly, racist past. That’s for the Tea Party. But he is also reminding us that Barack Obama is not, after all, descended from American slaves. That’s for the black viewers.