Rising Cain candidacy flips traditional narratives on politics and race

Herman Cain doesn’t fit snugly into the usual narrative about race and American politics.

It is not merely that the African-American businessman is coming on so strongly in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

It is that the bedrock of Cain’s support comes from demographic and ideological groups that are sometimes accused — falsely, they would say — of harboring racist tendencies.

Polls in recent weeks have indicated that Cain has conspicuously strong backing among Republicans in the states of the old Confederacy. He has been a Tea Party darling virtually since the movement’s inception. And, as recently as Friday, he was cheered to the rafters by the deeply conservative, and almost uniformly white, attendees of the Values Voter Summit in Washington.

Has Cain achieved this measure of support by sidestepping issues of race? Hardly.

In his speech announcing his candidacy, back in May, he invoked Martin Luther King Jr. 

Were he to become president, he said, “we will finally be able to say, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, America is free at last.’ ”

The line deftly combined a nod to King’s legacy with the suggestion that true freedom for African-Americans would involve shaking off their resilient attachment to the Democratic Party.

Cain made that point more explicitly, and more controversially, when he told CNN late last month that black voters had “been brainwashed into ... not even considering a conservative point of view.”

At Friday’s Values Voter Summit, one of the lines in his speech that attracted wild applause came when he related how a reporter had asked him whether he was “angry” about America, given the historic injustices meted out to African-Americans.

“I said, ‘Sir, you don’t get it,’ ” Cain told the crowd. “ ‘I have achieved all of my American dreams and then some because of the greatest nation, the United States of America.’ ”

It is no surprise that Cain’s candidacy is seen in fundamentally different ways, even within the ranks of black political commentators.

According to radio host and Tea Party activist David Webb, Cain’s candidacy has already made it easier for African-Americans to see the appeal of conservative ideas. Webb asserted that people like Cain and himself “help open up the discussion and bring down the stereotype” of unstinting allegiance to the Dems.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, the author of several books on the African-American experience, has a very different interpretation.

“The GOP has over a long period of time developed a very articulate handful of black conservatives — to, firstly, pound not just civil rights leaders but liberal Democrats generally; and, secondly, to create the illusion that there is a huge capacity among African-Americans to embrace the tenets of conservatism,” he said.

African-Americans continue to vote for Democrats over Republicans by a roughly 9-to-1 margin, making them among the most reliable voting blocs for either party. This pattern is a source of enormous frustration to black conservatives — they insist that the core conservative values of self-reliance and personal responsibility would have special efficacy within a community that is afflicted by so many social ills.

“Democrats have the worst plan for black Americans, but it is wrapped up in the brightest packaging,” said Charles Lollar, a black Republican who challenged then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in 2010. “Republicans have the best plan for black Americans, but it is wrapped in an old, plain paper bag.”

“I prefer conservative racism to liberal racism any day” is the stark verdict of Michel Faulkner, a New York Jet turned Harlem clergyman who ran on the Republican line against Democratic stalwart Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), also in 2010.

“Liberal racism is paternalistic,” Faulkner explained, adding that liberals’ message to blacks is “ 'We can’t achieve and we won’t achieve without their help.' They feel a kind of white guilt, and that cuts against any sense of black individual responsibility.”

But Faulkner seemed ambivalent, at best, about his party’s racial attitudes.

“I don’t think white conservatives really understand the African-American community,” he said.

“Too many” conservatives had a mindset that led them to believe that black Americans were constantly “looking for a handout.” He added that he and other black Republicans did not get the support from the party to which they were entitled.

“To run as a Republican in Harlem was extremely difficult. We have had conservative leaders in Harlem who have lost their churches and things like that. And then you find yourself bucking all these things for people [in the GOP] who will not support you when you’re in a tight spot.”

Such points naturally invite the most loaded charge of all: that black Republicans are being used; brandished by their white ideological comrades as human shields to repel the accusation of racism.

Cain’s prominence “allows the GOP and the Tea Party to say: ‘You see! We’re not racist! We got ol’ Herman here,’ ” Hutchinson said.

But there are alternative explanations. One is that the connection between conservatism and racism has always been exaggerated — or entirely confected, in the view of some Republicans — by liberals. The case for the defense notes, among other things, that it was Lincoln, a Republican president, who freed the slaves; that southern ‘Dixiecrats’ were often outright racists; and that the first black senator of the modern era and the first two black secretaries of State were all Republicans (Edward Brooke, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, respectively).

Another explanation is that racial attitudes really have changed. Back in July, during Cain’s initial surge, John McWhorter, a frequent commentator on black issues, contrasted Cain and the support he was receiving on the right with Obama. He wrote on The Root website that, during Obama’s 2008 presidential candidacy, an argument had often been made that white America remained racist, and that it was only Obama’s biracial background, light skin-tone and "neutral" speech patterns that rendered him electable.

"Herman Cain is definitely not one of the ‘good’ kind" of African-Americans, McWhorter wrote. “He’s darker, less educated and less courtly than Obama, and he couldn’t sound ‘not black’ at gunpoint. And yet he is currently a big hit among precisely the kind of white people who didn’t vote for Obama. ... It would seem that his being black doesn’t bother them much.”

Cain’s race could even be an asset. Charles Lollar argued that one of several components of his appeal might be that he offers diversity in the midst of a “sea of sameness” within conservatism.

Asked for her view on Cain’s rise, the American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert, said, “I don’t think it’s especially surprising. He’s a very strong, very likable candidate. Romney seems a little cold. Perry seems a little hot. The fact that Cain is black is really irrelevant.”

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, the candidate himself said, “I don’t believe racism in this country holds anybody back in a big way.”

The possibility that Cain’s race doesn’t matter could be the most revolutionary thought of all. Whether it’s true, however, will be hotly disputed for at least as long as he seeks the GOP nomination.