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Herman Cain And The Politics Of Race

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain shakes hands with Jeff Balaka, of Chelsea, Mich., while speaking at the Big Sky Diner in Ypsilanti, Mich., on Thursday. Despite allegations of sexual harassment that surfaced recently, Cain still enjoys the support of his conservative base.
Paul Sancya
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain shakes hands with Jeff Balaka, of Chelsea, Mich., while speaking at the Big Sky Diner in Ypsilanti, Mich., on Thursday. Despite allegations of sexual harassment that surfaced recently, Cain still enjoys the support of his conservative base.

Republicans are the party of Lincoln, but for the past several decades they haven't been the party of the people Lincoln freed. The overwhelming majority of black voters lean Democratic, and that, says black Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, can only be explained by one thing: groupthink.

"Many African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view," Cain told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

Cain and his conservatism have been riding high in the polls — tying with, and in some cases outdistancing, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the one-time frontrunner in the Republican race.

Cain has a devoted following in the Tea Party wing of the GOP. At the recent Americans for Prosperity Foundation's two-day conference in Washington, D.C., he got a roar of approval when he introduced himself as "the Koch brothers' brother from another mother." Charles and David Koch are multibillionaires who have funded myriad right-wing causes in recent years. One of their favorite ones lately has been Cain.

Jack E. White, a writer and political analyst who is a frequent contributor to the black website TheRoot.com, says Cain is attractive to conservative white voters because "he tells them what they want to hear about blacks, and in turn, they embrace him and say, 'See? That proves we're not racist.' "

Cain has said poor people are poor because they want to be, and says that while racism may still exist, it is only marginally relevant in the 21st century. His public appearances are often sprinkled with cheerful, folksy expressions and spontaneous outbursts of gospel songs.

"He's even willing to be a minstrel for them," White says, "referring to himself in some terms as cornbread, and referring to his father speaking ungrammatically, saying things like, 'I does not care ...' "

The Appeal Of A Regular Kind Of Guy

But that may, in part, be why Tea Partiers are comfortable with Cain.

"He's more earthy, down-homey, regular — not uppity," says Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, whose latest book is The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency. Kennedy contrasts Cain's image and background with President Obama, whose dual Ivy League degrees, obvious relish for intellectual conversations, and vacations on estates in Martha's Vineyard and Hawaii are sometimes off-putting for white voters who see themselves as "regular" people.

Cain himself likes to point out that of the two, he is the "authentic" black man — that, despite his wealth, he's as regular as can be. His parents, he said, started from nothing, and made sure he and his brother went to college. He was raised with the same ethos echoed in millions of black households since emancipation: Work hard. Save your money. Get as much education as you can, and make sure your children do, too.

Despite that, Cain has had little traction with black voters. Kennedy says that's because "black people know if Herman Cain had his way, their lives would be diminished. They intuit that Herman Cain's policies are against their interests."

Not A Colin Powell Republican

Vincent Hutchings, who studies the impact of race on politics and political campaigns at the University of Michigan, says Cain is a unique amalgam of things, and believes another kind of black Republican would not have gotten conservative support.

"They wouldn't have done this with, say, the equivalent of Colin Powell," Hutchings says. "Colin Powell was seen as a moderate to liberal Republican. He was also black, but he wouldn't have served the ideological purposes of that faction."

So, many white conservatives continue to embrace Cain — even in the face of recent sexual harassment allegations — while black voters steer clear.

Harvard's Kennedy says many black Americans found a recent ad run by Cain supporters to be particularly offensive. In it, Americans for Herman Cain compare then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas' angry statement about harassment charges he faced in 1991 to Cain's current predicament. Thomas' denunciation of what he called a "high-tech lynching" became the crescendo of the Cain ad. The tag line before the fade: "Don't let the left do it again."

Suddenly, race was relevant.

"Of course, as soon as he gets into trouble, race, race, race, race, race," Kennedy notes, dryly.

He adds, "That analogy is one that rubs a lot of black people the wrong way, because if you're lynched, you don't get to talk about it."

Cain has emphatically denied the harassment charges, and so far, they seem not to have hurt him at the polls. CNBC's Maria Bartiromo was loudly booed at Wednesday's debate in Rochester, Mich., after she asked Cain whether he thinks he has the character to be president. His answer: "The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations."

So far, Cain still enjoys steadfast support from his white conservative base, despite publicly being accused of sexual harassment by two white women. That he didn't risk the same fate as Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, is for many an odd measure of racial progress.

Hutchings, the Michigan professor, says the harassment charges may cause a drop in his support eventually, but for now, Cain is still able.

"I would be loathe to write off Herman Cain at this point," Hutchings says. "He may be crazy, but he's crazy like a fox."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of the text published with this story did not include changes that had been made during the editing process. The text was subsequently revised to reflect those edits.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.