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.