Tea party members and mainstream Republicans have been flocking to support Herman Cain’s campaign in droves, but the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza still struggles to find support among black media personalities.
Many have resorted to striking rhetoric in their criticisms of Cain, with some charging that the candidate himself is racist against blacks.
No matter which way he turns, Cain faces accusations of playing racial politics. In the uproar over the Washington Post’s discovery of a rock emblazoned with a racial slur at a ranch Rick Perry frequented, Cain condemned the word as “insensitive.” He was subsequently panned by commentators on the right for playing the race card.
Hilary Shelton, vice president of advocacy at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told The Daily Caller that he appreciated Cain’s forthrightness on the Perry flap.
“He mentioned the insensitivity, and I thought that showed some direction. But until we see a civil rights agenda, it’s hard to say, and I haven’t seen any of the candidates talking about a civil rights agenda. From our perspective, Herman Cain, much like anyone else running for president, needs to talk about what their commitments are to civil rights.”
Cain’s campaign is “a modern-day artifact of House Negro attacks during slavery,” said Boyce Watkins, writing at News One. Cain himself is merely “the dark-faced puppet of those who are afraid to touch the issue [of race].”
Mo’Kelly, writing in the Electronic Urban Report, echoed Watkins’ position, saying Cain offers a “leather couch” for Republicans to be more comfortable with their racism. This co-opting explains why black Republicans — including Cain, Alan Keyes and Michael Steele — never seem to “find real traction” among black voters. Cain, he wrote, represents “tokenism,” and in effect reinforces the party’s racist past.
But is the antipathy between Cain and the black intelligentsia his own fault? Cain has called black voters who refuse to consider a Republican presidential candidate “brainwashed,” and his small-government, anti-entitlement stances run against the grain of the majority of black voters, though his social conservatism does not.
Roland Martin at CNN had some strong words regarding Cain’s “brainwashing” statements.
“You would think that a black man born and raised in Georgia, who was a teenager during the civil rights movement, would understand the transition of African-Americans from voting overwhelmingly Republican to strongly supporting the Democratic Party.”
Javier David, a conservative writer at the Grio, gave a more measured analysis of Cain, though still offered cautionary words. Cain’s rhetoric “has yet to find the right balance, and has sometimes appeared hamfisted or tone-deaf with his bold statements. His proclamations of being ‘a real black man’ and being able to snare a third of the black vote smacked of the sort of race-baiting normally exhibited by liberal Democrats.”
However, David is among only a small handful of black commentators willing to acknowledge Cain’s chances at getting the presidential nod. Between polling victories and a rising media profile, he wrote there were “more reasons now to believe in the upstart Cain than any other point since the GOP primary contest began.”
In a June interview with Bloomberg View, Cain ignited an identity politics brouhaha when he said he preferred the label “black American,” to “African American,” because he didn’t feel especially connected to his African roots.
“Most of the ancestors that I can trace were born here in the United States of America, and then it goes back to slavery. And I’m sure my ancestors go all the way back to Africa, but I feel more of an affinity for America than I do for Africa. I’m a black man in America.”
Unlike Obama, who can trace his ancestry to Kenya, Cain shares the experience of many black Americans who cannot — part of the legacy of slavery. In a certain way, Cain’s view represents the polar opposite of the Afrocentrist movement that sought to restore a sense of African heritage in the black community. And in restricting his cultural affinity to America, Cain roused the ire of several commentators.
Writing in the Grio, Edward Wyckoff Williams said Cain “needs a history lesson.”
“Even if he chose — as many black Americans do — to associate as ‘black’ instead of ‘African-American’ or ‘Afro-American,’ his statements are inappropriate on the grounds that they seem to deliberately negate the African ancestry inherent in being ‘black’ American.”
Shelton dismisses these semantic criticisms. “There are some people in our community that prefer to be called African American, some people prefer to call themselves black, and some people in our community have been around long enough that they call themselves colored,” he said. “The real question is, what distinction does he make between the two?”
Gerren Keith Gaynor defended Cain in the same flap, arguing the candidate, “couldn’t be more correct. Identity is quite arbitrary, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with omitting ‘African’ from our nationality. However in doing so, it seems as if we lose a piece of who we are — although it can be argued that, for most, loss of identity happened centuries ago.”
Shelton says Cain will need to clarify his positions on issues that matter to the black community if he hopes to have any chance of achieving his boast of being able to peel off a third of black voters.
“I’d like to hear his position regarding issues like racial profiling. We still have a problem in this country with racial profiling by law enforcement officials. And let me say this — I want to hear it from him, but I want to hear it from all the candidates. Just because Herman Cain is the only African American among the Republican candidates doesn’t mean he should be the only one who should answer on civil rights issues.”