Even before Matt Drudge linked to it, I knew that my latest story would anger some liberals and black people. My job is to report what people of all backgrounds are thinking and feeling about race. Many people who find a particular belief offensive—in this case, that some black people vote for Obama mostly because he is black—assume that I share the belief that is being written about, or at least want to promote it.
Here’s one such response I got last night:
You should be very proud that your shallow story is being used by partisan Republicans to claim to white voters that black voters are being racist. You could have written a much longer and serious story that might have explored various "dog whistle" (if you do not know the phrase refers to you might do a little reasearch) that Republicans are using against the man they call the "food stamp president". And that pehaps black voters have noticed. Or compare Obama policies versus Romney policies on dozens of issues of concern to black voters and consider whether black voters might believe Obama's policies are better for them in the same way that, perhaps,companies that pollute believe Romney's policies are better for them. Or you might consider whether Supreme Court decisions are important to black voters and they would rather Obama name justices than Romney (you may not realize this, but black voters do know about the Supreme Court.) Or dozens of similar major issues.
If I say you are a lazy reporter, am I suggesting you are black, with the same dog whistle John Sununu employed when he said Obama was lazy? No, I am just saying you are a lazy reporter, which I just did, not knowing or caring about your race, though I suspect some black voters (correctly) were offended by Sununu's dog whistle comment.
Did you send your story to Matt Drudge? Or your editor? Or the Romney campaign?
(a white man who does not appeciate dog whistle politics or stories such as yours).
I understand where he’s coming from—the same place that conservatives were coming from when they were angered by my piece a month ago exploring whether white people oppose Obama because he is black. I expect this kind of thing. Maybe I encourage it with my writing style for these pieces, which is factual reporting combined with a heavy dose of analysis (which is prettyclose to opinion). So I’m not mad at the man who sent the above message. We had an email conversation, although he probably ended up madder than when we started.
However, I was mildly surprised that a good number of conservatives, and one or two blatant racists, responded negatively to this article. Like so:
Blacks vote for obama because they are inherently dumb. Look in the mirror and then read your own piece believing someone else wrote. Dumb, right? It is the best interest for you and others who still enslave the Black race for your own benefit that you keep them thinking of themselves as a lesser people. Whitey is the evil boogie man.You tell them, your dumb, uneducated because you were slaves, had to ride the back of the bus. Of course 95% of those you convince where never there. Today it is the Black race and Black so called leaders who are the RACIST of the 21st century. Educated Blacks go one of two ways . They get out of the ghetto and Ghetto thinking, become productive and asimilate into the general productive population, or like yourself, they prey on their own race as slave masters.
I hate the N word, but you and your kind are that.
Or like so:
I appreciate the overall subject of your article. I reject its conclusion; that it's right, or at least understandable that black voters will vote for black candidates simply because they are black, but it is wrong for white voters to vote for white candidates because they are white. … I don't know your race or background, but I can easily see your politics by the piece you wrote. Whoever you are, you have done a disservice to your profession with ignorant misstatements of historical fact, one-sided quotes and uncrticial thinking. You have perpetuated the false and illogical principle that it's okay for today's American blacks to view politics through race-colored glasses, but it's wrong for any other race to do the same.
It’s believed that people read and remember news/information that reinforces the beliefs they already have. But what about a balanced story like mine, which presents both sides of an emotional issue? It seems to me that some people can selectively read a single article and extract what they like or dislike, while simultaneously ignoring/debating the information that counters their preconceived notions.
I try not to be that person. I find it healthy to assume that I'm wrong a good portion of the time. That way I can keep searching for truth.
So Herman Cain believes that his blackness is a factor in his woman troubles. Here's part of a conversation with Charles Krauthammer on Fox News:
KRAUTHAMMER: Mr. Cain, when Clarence Thomas was near to achieving position of high authority, he was hit with a sexual harassment charge. You, contending for presidency nomination, the office of highest authority, leading in the polls for the Republican nomination, all of a sudden get hit with a sexual harassment charge. Do you think that race, being a strong black conservative, has anything to do with the fact you've been so charged? And if so, do you have any evidence to support that?
CAIN: I believe the answer is yes, but we do not have any evidence to support it. But because I am unconventional candidate running an unconventional campaign and achieving some unexpected unconventional results in terms of my, the poll, we believe that, yes, there are some people who are Democrats, liberals, who do not want to see me win the nomination. And there could be some people on the right who don't want to see me because I'm not the, quote/unquote, "establishment candidate." No evidence.
KRAUTHAMMER: But does race have any part of that? Establishment, maverick, yes. What about race?
CAIN: Relative to the left I believe race is a bigger driving factor. I don't think it's a driving factor on the right. This is just based upon our speculation.
What does Cain mean when he says "there are some people who are Democrats, liberals, who do not want to see me win the nomination ... relative to the left I believe race is the bigger driving factor"?
I've spoken about Cain recently with five black conservatives: Armstrong Williams, Michael Steele, Richard Ivory of hiphoprepublican.com, Mychal Massie, and Crystal Wright of conservativeblackchick.com. Some of them expressed hopes that Cain could break the near-monopoly Democrats have had on the black vote since the 1960s. This view holds that Cain--born and raised in Jim Crow Georgia, Morehouse College graduate, minister at his black church--can connect with black voters on a visceral level. And this view draws a contrast with President Obama, whom some Republicans describe as Hawaii-born, Harvard-educated, and half-white.
So perhaps Cain is saying that liberals are afraid he might win black votes from Obama and challenge the conventional black political mindset, and therefore are coming after him with these sexual harassment accusations.
You know, another high-tech lynching:
But Condoleeza Rice disagrees:
"I actually am someone who-- doesn't believe in playing the race card on either side. I've seen it played, by the way, on the other side quite a lot too. And it's not good for the country."
(Imagine if she had run for president.)
Even before these harassment allegations broke, the conventional wisdom was that Cain didn't have enough money or campaign infrastructure to win the GOP nomination. It remains to be seen whether the harassment claims will knock Cain from atop the polls. No matter what happens, he doesn't seem likely to get knocked out of the racial discussion any time soon.
Herman Cain is complicating the era of the first black president, simply by trying to become the second one.
Even though Cain is less likely to become the GOP's presidential nominee than Tea Party is to occupy Wall Street, his rise raises many fascinating, nuanced and subjective questions about race and politics. I’d like to explore a few of them here this week, one question at a time.
Before that, though: the "inappropriate sexual behavior" thing. Yes, the accusations against Cain immediately bring Clarence Thomas to mind. Yes, both men are older black Republicans born in Georgia. Yes, there is a media fascination with sexual transgressions, especially those involving black men. And yes, most people who work at major news outlets are not conservative, which influences the product to a certain extent. (There is no such thing as pure journalistic objectivity. We journalists just need to be as fair as humanly possible.)
But does this mean that the Cain allegations got so much attention because Cain is black, or because he is a black conservative? Well, if Mitt Romney had been the subject of the same allegations, he would be receiving the same scrutiny. (If the women who accused Cain are publicly revealed as white, though, all bets are off.) And certainly voters deserve to know that a leading candidate for president was accused of inappropriate behavior by two of his employees, and that the women were compensated in exchange for dropping the matter.
If Cain's race is any type of factor in the story about the charges, his blackness looms far larger in other areas. Such as the obvious question of, does Cain’s success blunt the persistent accusations that the GOP harbors racists, and that opposition to Obama is partly/largely due to white resistance to the idea of a black president?
In other words, does Cain’s success mean conservatives are less racist than some liberals say?
Logically, it would seem the answer is yes. How can a racist person or party be so enthusiastic about a black candidate? This is what conservatives are saying. Armstrong Williams, the black conservative commentator and TV host, told me that Republicans “want the right president, and if he happens to be black, more the better. They want to show, more than anything else, if the Democratic party can select the wrong one, we can select the right one, and he just happens to be black. … They feel good about that, because it will get a monkey off their backs.”
A monkey off their backs. Good one.
But some aren’t letting the GOP off that easily. They believe that a white person can have stereotypical beliefs about black folks in general—they’re lazy, promiscuous, violent, etc.—and still think that individual blacks are OK.
“There are people who might vote for Cain, and think he will be a good leader, and still think that most black people are failures,” Imani Perry, a black studies professor at Princeton, told me. I’m sure this view will infuriate some conservatives who think that no matter what they do, they will still be called racist.
Does this leave us back where we started—with conservatives constantly cast as prejudiced? I don’t think so.
“Politics are so shaped by image and symbolism and sound byte,” Perry said. “Our attention span for political content is so short, that how someone looks, the few details we know about them, winds up having a big impact on opinions about them, sometimes more than their actual beliefs and arguments.”
Cain is undeniably black. He looks black, down to the gold chain around his neck. If you close your eyes and listen to him talk, he sounds black. (“Alan Keyes sounds like he’s from Oxford,” Linda Chavez, CEO of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, told me.) Cain was raised by a chauffeur and a maid in the Jim Crow South. He graduated from Morehouse. This is potent imagery. I don’t think this particular black man will leave the dynamic of race and politics unchanged.
Talking with some of my more conservative friends, I have discovered the common view that Obama is trying to "destroy America." This will happen, the thinking goes, by creating more dependency on more social welfare programs until these programs bankrupt the country. Then, they believe, Obama will be able to transition into some sort of socialist state.
The other day a reporter asked Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, whether he thought Obama is trying to "destroy America." Coburn's response:
"No, I don’t . . . He’s a very bright man. But think about his life. And think about what he was exposed to and what he saw in America. He’s only relating what his experience in life was. . . . His intent isn’t to destroy. It’s to create dependency because it worked so well for him. I don’t say that critically. Look at people for what they are. Don’t assume ulterior motives. I don’t think he doesn’t love our country. I think he does. As an African American male, coming through the progress of everything he experienced, he got tremendous benefit through a lot of these programs. So he believes in them. I just don’t believe they work overall and in the long run they don’t help our country. But he doesn’t know that because his life experience is something different. So it’s very important not to get mad at the man. And I understand, his philosophy — there’s nothing wrong with his philosophy other than it’s goofy and wrong [laughter] — but that doesn’t make him a bad person."
This comment was called to my attention by an outraged Yale friend of mine, a black doctor. He sees Coburn looking at a successful black man and assuming that a) he achieved his station in life through affirmative action, not talent and hard work, and b) he must have been on welfare, food stamps, or some such. My friend called it a case of "these mediocre oblivious white men slip(ping) into this overtly racist thinking."
The doctor emailed the quote to me and two other Yale friends. One of them, a black foundation director with a Stanford MBA, had this to say:
"The GOP is simply a modern day version of the KKK. You get shouted down for saying these sorts of things, but it's true. They are white supremacists. Coburn merely reflects the unmuzzled philosophy of the GOP. Fellas, they are extremists, plain and simple. I've been complaining about Obama's approach to the GOP since Day 1, because he's approached them as if they are rational people. They are not. They are religious and cultural extremists."
I'd say that comment uses a pretty broad brush. But I found it quite significant, because the person who said it, a man I have known for 25 years, is an extraordinarily intelligent, friendly, and just plain decent person, who has many white friends and colleagues. He is not one to see an anti-black conspiracy hiding behind every bush. But when he cuts to the essence of what he hears from the GOP, he hears racism. There's an enormous perception gap when it comes to what is or is not racist behavior, something we have to solve in order to move forward. Call this Exhibit 4,080.
Jesse Washington is a Senior Writer for ESPN's TheUndefeated.com