By Marcia Alesan Dawkins
It’s official: “The American people are going to raise some Cain in 2012!” With these words, Herman Cain has pledged to stay in the race for the Republican nomination despite the fact that his campaign finds itself mangled in a new #Cainwreck this week. Cain’s train was nearly derailed Monday by Ginger White, who claims to have had a 13-year “inappropriate relationship” with the candidate. Cain denies the affair but can’t deny the impact this news might have on this campaign.
When asked by reporters after a rally near Cincinnati this week whether he would leave the GOP race, Cain answered, “We are reassessing.” Elaborating on that theme Cain reminded reporters that “there’s a groundswell of positive support” for his candidacy despite continued “character assassination.” That was certainly the case after the first wave of sexual harassment allegations, when Cain’s campaign received millions of dollars in donations. But most pundits agree that no matter what he says, Cain won’t be so lucky this time.
Several politicians agree. Among them are state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Nev., and former New Hampshire House of Representatives member Fran Wendelboe, a Republican. Leslie said that “Herman Cain is a one-man reality show. Entertaining, but hardly presidential.” Wendelboe remarked that “if these allegations of a long affair prove true, he needs to pack up and go home and beg his wife for forgiveness. Short of this woman being proven to be an absolute liar, I think this has just finished his presidential dreams.”
Rather than rehashing the details of Cain’s alleged improprieties, I thought I’d take his advice and “reassess” what his notoriety and candidacy reveal about race, gender and political communication today.
Surprisingly, Herman Cain has one thing right. If nothing else, his campaign has shown that race is as much a way of thinking as it is anything else. Because that’s the case, he is taking advantage of the fact that some audiences think about race differently from others. For his conservative (mostly white) audiences, race equals negative discrimination (racism). So the connections made to Clarence Thomas make some sense. For more diverse and/or liberal audiences, the way Cain’s embodying race seems more like a performance, an inauthentic spectacle. And Cain’s performance becomes increasingly insulting to those who see him as making light of a painful and violent history of lynching, high-tech or otherwise, whose effects are still felt. For Cain’s critics, his strategy of denying the sexual harassment charges seems as inauthentic and potentially insulting as his perceived racial performance.
Then there’s the taboo subtext of interracial sexual relationships between black men and white women. Despite the fact that interracial romantic relationships are on the rise and seem to be more accepted today, many couples report that prejudice remains. For example, when asked about her experiences in a recent New York Times article, the wife in an interracial black-white couple commented, “People confront you, and it’s not once in a while, it’s all the time. Each time is like a little paper cut, and you might think, ‘Well, that’s not a big deal.’ But imagine a lifetime of that. It hurts.” If we add to this personal discrimination the larger illicit qualities of extramarital affairs and power abuse in the workplace we can see these latest allegations as crippling to the success of Cain’s overall brand in the political and social marketplaces. What’s more, we see how race and alleged racism can be used to trump gender and alleged sexism.
In this respect Cain is not alone. He’s just the latest in a long line of “mad men” treated as individual bad men and not as part of a society that devalues women. The recent focus on Cain reveals that we’ve become desensitized and are either unable or unwilling to address discrimination against women of all racial or ethnic backgrounds in a serious and political manner. Instead, Cain calls White a “troubled Atlanta businesswoman” in a recently released fundraising letter. White’s allegations are also dubbed “a distraction” by Cain, whose position seems to be that he never did anything wrong and that this is all concocted by a liberal media out to get him because of his conservative views.
Finally, there’s the issue of political correctness. Cain prides himself on being a political outsider, which, according to him, frees him from the bounds of politics-as-usual. But that same freedom may come back to bite him as the campaign moves forward. His charming awkwardness (i.e., non sequitur “9-9-9” responses to questions he doesn’t want to answer), gaffes (i.e., foreign policy regarding Libya) and explanations (i.e., “I’m a leader not a reader”) may be entertaining but they are also not presidential. Cain’s decision to stay in the race proves that he will not change direction. Despite his self-proclaimed political incorrectness, we must remember that in this case he’s telling the honest truth. Cain’s candidacy will not change. And it won’t change the ways in which power and resources are distributed in our nation either.
AP / Al Behrman
A Herman Cain supporter shows his support before a speech by the candidate at a campaign rally Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio.