What’s Race Got to Do With Herman Cain?

What’s Race Got to Do With Herman Cain?

What’s Race Got to Do With Herman Cain?

His rise and fall are instructive about the way race, sex and class operate in presidential campaigns.


If Herman Cain’s entrance onto the national stage was a peculiar affair, his departure from it was no less so. Quoting Pokémon, while barbecue was served to supporters in colonial dress and a blues band played—the atmosphere of his farewell speech was almost as absurd as the campaign itself. Befitting the skewed values that have underpinned this Republican primary circus, it was not allegations of sexual harassment that finished him off (let alone the ignorance he wore as a badge of honor) but the suggestion of a consensual affair.

Nonetheless, both his rise and his fall are instructive about the manner in which race, sex and class operate, autonomously and in concert, logically and in apparent contradiction. During his brief, comic sojourn at the top of the Republican field, some marveled that the very wing of the party that had become so openly and virulently racist over the past few years would have chosen, however briefly, a black candidate as its champion—but they shouldn’t have. If racism were a simple morality play starring villains and victims, bad words and good intentions, then his support among Tea Party members would indeed be puzzling. But it’s not. It’s a system of oppression that discriminates against people on the basis of their race. It’s the system that creates the mindset, not the other way around. So long as the system remains intact, the identity of those administering it holds only symbolic relevance. “There’s a model of diversity,” Angela Davis once told me, “as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change.”

In fact, in all sorts of ways the presence of black people at the helm helps in deflecting accusations of racism. People become fixated on what an organization looks like rather than what it does. As a result the principle of fighting structural discrimination in order to create equal opportunities is eclipsed by the desire to showcase difference through photo opportunities. In the words of Ann Coulter, “Our blacks are so much better than their blacks.”

So it’s been that Louisiana’s governor, Bobby Jindal, whose parents are Indian, has been elevated by the same core constituency that backed former Klansman David Duke; that South Carolina, the last state in the nation to fly the Confederate flag on its statehouse lawn, elected another child of Indian immigrants, Nikki Haley.

Arundhati Roy compared this to the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey: “A few carefully bred turkeys…the occasional Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice…are given absolution and a pass to Frying Pan Park. The remaining millions lose their jobs, are evicted from their homes, have their water and electricity connections cut, and die of AIDS. Basically they’re for the pot…. who can say that turkeys are against Thanksgiving? They participate in it!”

It’s certainly significant that electoral racism is on the decline. In 1958, 53 percent of voters said they would not vote for a well-qualified black candidate for president; in 1984 it was 16 percent; by 2003 it was 6 percent; now it stands at 3 percent.

Indeed, polls show that Americans feel more comfortable about a black person leading the country than about one marrying a white person. So Cain may have had a point about electoral politics when he said, “I don’t have a lot of patience for people who want to blame racism on the fact that some people don’t make it in America,” or that “I don’t believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way.” The trouble is that these statements don’t make sense for almost any other aspect of life in America, from employment to incarceration and from housing to poverty.

So much for Cain’s rise. On the way down, however, the framing changed. As allegations of sexual harassment came flooding in, he became one of those people for whom he has no patience. Asked by Fox News if he thought the attacks on him were racially motivated, Cain said, “I believe the answer is yes, but we do not have any evidence to support it…. We believe there are some people who are Democrats, liberals, who do not want to see me win the nomination.”

Having dismissed the very notion of collective racial disadvantage, he began to invoke a sense of his specific racial victimhood. Not just as a black man—but as a black Republican. And, like Clarence Thomas before him, Cain and his supporters leveraged this rarefied sense of victimhood not against racism as such but women in general and feminism in particular. Coulter decried “liberal women using laws to protect blacks in order to attack conservative blacks with these vicious, outrageous charges.”

The poorer the woman, the more vulnerable she was to these attacks. Sharon Bialek, the first to go public with accusations of sexual harassment, was dismissed by his campaign primarily because she was broke. Cain’s opponents, his spokesperson claimed, “have now convinced a woman with a long history of severe financial difficulties, including personal bankruptcy, to falsely accuse the Republican frontrunner of events allegedly occurring well over a decade ago for which there is no record, nor even a complaint filed.” The day before Cain suspended his campaign he launched a website, Women for Cain (a key supporter of which was Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece Alveda), giving a forum for an escalation of these smears. Female supporters lambasted “pathetic husbandless women” who “can’t find a husband or keep one” and trashed his accusers as “money hungry.” “I also hope you pursue a slander, libel, defamation of character suit against this moneygrubbing, lying woman. Granted, she has no $, but it would send a strong message,” a comment reads on the homepage.

And so it was that a campaign that rose on the notion that anyone can make it in America regardless of who they are spent its dying moments trying to destroy people precisely because of who they are.

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