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.
Jesse Washington is a Senior Writer for ESPN's TheUndefeated.com