By Marcia Alesan Dawkins
Has the GOP done much for African-Americans since it ended slavery in 1863? The answer is a resounding yes if you talk to presidential candidate Herman Cain, its latest “not hyphenated ABC” (American black conservative).
Cain casts himself as an outsider, a black Main Street CEO who is ready to unleash true innovation and change upon Washington. But he’s really more like an outsider within, as it was revealed recently that the candidate is proud to be on the Koch brothers’ bankroll—aka, Americans for Prosperity. For that reason and others, Cain says he poses a credible threat to President Obama. And, as he tells it, liberals of all backgrounds should be cowering because he is something the president is not: a “real black man.”
As opposed to Obama, who downplayed racial difference when he ran for president, Cain is playing it to the hilt. Sadly, the problem with either of these approaches is that white manhood remains relatively uncharted territory. By exaggerating or ignoring difference, white manhood maintains its status and power as the norm.
“Nothing could be closer to the truth,” says Ulli K. Ryder, visiting scholar at Brown University. When asked by The New York Times for her take on Cain’s public persona, Ryder said what appears to be on the minds of many. “The larger issue that a lot of people have, and I certainly have, is that he uses a certain kind of minstrelsy to play to white audiences,” she said. “Referencing negative stereotypes in order to get heard [by] a white audience in the 21st century is really a problem.”
Although some supporters find the thought of comparing Cain to a minstrel rather “vulgar,” for Ryder and others it’s on the mark. Cain is frightening because he feeds into a tradition of obsessive entertainment with racial difference.
For instance, earlier this year Cain pleased his largely white conservative audience by starting a campaign speech with the vernacular phrase “Awww, shucky ducky!” Cain also commented on his political appeal by referring to himself as a delicious edible product, like “Häagen-Dazs black walnut” ice cream. Cain later explained his fashion choice of gold ties in terms of racial appearance, as the color “happens to look good against this beautiful dark skin.” He referred to African-Americans who do not support him as closed-minded and racially “brainwashed.” And, referencing the nation’s long history of enslavement and escape in “The Herman Cain Get on the Train” music video,” he said that he “left that Democratic plantation a long time ago and … ain’t goin’ back.” It seems that for Cain, liberal racial thinking is a disability to be transcended in our pursuit of a free and freethinking post-race nation.
Cain’s message is problematic because it moves racial politics into the realm of personal friendship and feeling, diverting attention from historical and structural aspects of racial injustice. Such moves are especially evident in Cain’s strategy of determining who is and isn’t racist. At a recent CPAC conference, Cain addressed his supporters as loyal friends, telling them, “I got a breaking news announcement for you: You are not a racist, you are patriots.” In his campaign video, he made a direct personal appeal to audiences by addressing critics, including outspoken actor Morgan Freeman, who see the tea party as a racist movement. “To those who say the tea party is racist,” Cain retorts, “eat your words.”
Cain’s brand of domestic racial politicking also spills over into his positions on foreign policy concerns such as immigration. Recently Cain “joked” that he would approve the building of an electrified fence at the border to kill anyone who tried to cross without authorization. Eric Lott, professor of American studies at the University of Virginia, explains this strategy in an essay entitled “White Like Me.” Lott writes, “The domination of international others depends on mastering the other at home—and in oneself: an internal colonization which is often exceeded or threatened by the gender and racial arrangements on which it depends.”
Evidently, Cain’s strategy for being taken seriously on the global stage is directly linked to his strategy for being taken seriously at home. Step 1: Highlight stereotypical, surface-level racial difference as quickly and stereotypically as possible. Step 2: Distance yourself ideologically from what racial difference supposedly means (i.e., historical and structural racism) as loudly and unctuously as possible. Step 3: Repeat steps 1 and 2 until your own well-funded political goals are fully masked as a solution to America’s racial and economic distress.
Flickr / Gage Skidmore (CC-BY-SA)