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.
I’ve seen this strategy before. In 2004 Republican candidate Alan Keyes was asked during a Senate debate with Barack Obama if he supported reparations for slavery. Stunning many, Keyes responded “yes.” Then he followed up, “And Mr. Obama will not be eligible for any because while I am descended from American slaves, he is not.” It was a weird moment that disrupted easy assumptions about racial authenticity. Keyes may have been the Republican. He may have been booed at the Southside Chicago Bud Billiken parade. He may have been called an Uncle Tom. But, he laid claim to a particular form of black “realness” unavailable to Obama.
Herman Cain’s “up from” story resonates with the familiar strains of heroic Booker T. Washington–ism. His staunch determination despite being dismissed as a laughably unlikely candidate appeals to a respected black tradition of political defiance. His personal trajectory from a slave past, a childhood in the rural South, through the esteemed Morehouse College, and onto entrepreneurial success is likely a familiar story to many African-Americans. One can disagree vehemently with Cain, but it is tough to claim that he is not authentically black.
I might argue that Cain’s authenticity claims are ripe for a "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong" skit by Dave Chapelle, but they are not completely alien. Which leads me to a third point.
(3) Cain’s campaign reminds us of the danger of simplistic racial arguments.
Herman Cain’s candidacy is a cautionary tale against the simplistic racial reasoning that has dominated much of American political discourse in the past few years. In order to meaningfully confront Herman Cain’s use of racial authenticity claims and his insistence that his candidacy proves the Tea Party is not racist requires far more complex racial understandings than we have been offered in recent years.
I suggest that we do away with all blacker-than-thou arguments about who does and does not get to be “really black” or “black enough.” Engaging in these life-experience-authenticity-litmus tests allows us to imagine that biography determines political solidarity. Herman Cain is a reminder that it does not.
Further, we need to bury, once and for all, the idea that racism is primarily about saying mean or unflattering things about black people, and specifically saying mean or unflattering things about President Obama. We need to insist that discussions of American racism rest firmly in revealing and addressing the disparate impact of policies and practices that create or deepen racially unequal outcomes. Racial animus might have prompted the nasty signage about the president at anti–healthcare reform rallies, but who cares? The issues of racism in healthcare are the continuing racial health disparities that impact black Americans from infancy to old-age. When some whites refuse to vote for Barack Obama it might be caused by racism, but the voting racism I am much more interested in is the voting and registration regulations that state governments are imposing right now in ways that will likely disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of black voters.
If we allow white Democrats to believe that support for Barack Obama is sufficient to protect them from any racialized criticism then we will have to extend that same logic to Republican supporters of Cain. Both are ridiculous. The politically relevant question on race is not the willingness to support a candidate who shows up in a black body. Anti-racism is not about hugging the black guy running for president, it’s about embracing policies that reduce structural unfairness and eliminate continuing racial inequality.
Herman Cain will not be the president of the United States, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore him. Paying attention may be a wake up call we need.