Herman Cain and the Myth of Acceptable Black Behavior

by Roland Laird

30 November 2011


Talking Black, Demanding Respect

That many (including myself) disagree with the actual policies behind those words, is simply not the point, since through the comedic black authority figure, most Americans have been exposed to a black image that can joke and command authority at the same time.  So when Cain sings or jokes in front of a large number of white folks, the black pundits fear that he is shucking and jiving ‘for the man’, and ignores the fact that many Americans are far more likely to map him to a folksy authority figure with a sense of humor than a dehumanized coon image.

This point cannot be overstated, since folksy with a sense of humor occupies a significant space in the American mind in the form of former President Ronald Reagan.

That it could even be suggested that Cain could possibly conjure up images of Ronald Reagan takes us to a place where the black pundits criticism is on its firmest ground. That criticism being that in order to be successful, Cain has to distance himself from his blackness. This perspective, though valid to a point, places too much emphasis on Cain without speaking to the context of political theater, and the “script” black candidates follow when seeking majority white constituencies or consensus on policies.

To that end, in 2000, the renowned black sociologist William Junius Wilson published an article entitled, Race Neutral Policies and The Democratic Coalition (Prospect.org, 4 December). Wilson’s central thesis that explicitly emphasizing “blackness” is an outmoded strategy is contained in the following passage:

“Such a change of emphasis is overdue. In the 1960s efforts to raise the public’s awareness and conscience about the plight of black Americans helped to enact civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs. However, by the 1980s the civil rights strategy of dramatizing black disadvantage was backfiring. The “myth of black progress” theme, frequently invoked to reinforce arguments for stronger race-specific programs, played easily into the hands of conservative critics of antibias policies.”

Though Wilson’s advice was directed to the Democratic Party as a way to keep white voters, it’s also applicable to a black candidate, irrespective of party, seeking large numbers of white votes. Nine years after Wilson’s article, Joy James of the University of Texas, had this to say about what she calls, The New Black Candidate:

“In shifting class and racial identities, blackness remains fixed as negation (of civil society, of prosperity, of law and order, and of patriotism). Thus on the campaign trail, it is to be avoided or disciplined, or in the case of the candidate’s persona, transcended.” (“Campaigns against “Blackness”’: Criminality, Incivility, and Election to Executive Office”, Williams College, Humanities Dept., 9 October 2009

Thus, when Cain says he is “American first, black second and conservative third”, he may in fact be subordinating his Blackness to his American-ness, but no more than President Barack Obama does when he says, “The most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again.”

That Obama is favorably(or at least neutrally) viewed by many of the black pundits for being able to navigate “the system”, while Cain’s behavior is roundly criticized as selling out or self-hating is an inconsistency that said pundits fail to address.

Yet despite the “script” that calls for mainstream black candidates to transcend blackness, Cain finds ways to reference his race and his culture. He does this by singing hymns that are part of his black Baptist tradition. He does this when he talks about his “beautiful black skin” or jokingly says his security code name should “Cornbread” or that he’s not ice milk, but rather “black walnut ice cream”. Ironically those actions are viewed by many in the punditry as an unacceptable way of being black and that Cain is in essence “tap dancing” for the man. That unfortunate perspective proscribes that there is an acceptable way to be black in public, and ignores Cain’s following statements about Detroit, Michigan—a city that is 82 percent black: “The economy is on life support, and you have some cities and some communities where it’s not even on life support,” Cain said. “They’ve disconnected the tubing and they’re dying. How about Detroit?” (NorthStar.com, 30 September 11).

By painting a picture of a majority black American city that has been “abandoned” by mainstream policies is Cain not at least acknowledging some form of institutionalized disparity? Hasn’t he found a way, as Dr. Wilson advised black democrats, to find a way to talk about racism without actually saying the word? And if Cain is in fact simply “tap dancing”, then how does anybody explain Cain facing a hostile West Alabama crowd in October, that was described in the following way, “The audience at the West Alabama State Straw Poll in the University of Alabama’s Bryant Conference Center saw a different side of Herman Cain this morning, as instead of his usual punch lines, he took a dig at the crowd.” (“Herman Cain Gets Testy at West Alabama Straw Poll” by Sarah Kunin, ABC.com, 29 October 11)

Do kow-towing, tap dancing black men regularly go to Alabama of all places, and demand that white Alabamans to show them respect?

Juxtaposing the cultural references that Cain often uses to accent his public appearances with the ability to push back on a hostile crowd in one of the most historically racist states in the country, provides a more well-rounded view of Cain’s behavior that I’m hard-pressed to liken to “tap dancing” or “shucking and jiving”. That the black pundits can focus on what they characterize as “minstrel-like” behavior without nary a mention of Cain’s Alabama incident or his stance towards Detroit, is a major flaw in the black pundits’ analysis.

Another flaw in their view of the impact of Cain is the reaction, or dare I say non-reaction, of the black punditry to the sexual harassment accusations that have recently come to light during Cain’s campaign. Let’s say for argument sake that the pundits like Charles Blow of the New York Times are right, and that there is a chance that Cain is setting race relations and black people back 50 years. (RealClearPolitics.com, 05 November 11)

If this were the case, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that the allegations that Cain sexually harassed white women would raise the ire of the white power structure to a fever pitch? If I were to use the historic cultural guideposts that the black pundits use to evaluate Cain, would it be a leap to suggest that the vast majority of white men that support him, would do something significantly worse than not vote for Cain?

Instead, what we see is some of the most rabid white conservatives coming to the defense of Cain. Some pundits say their motivation is because Cain will help them maintain the status quo. I agree with this perspective, but the problem is I’m hard pressed to find any nationally elected black official, be they liberal or conservative. that does not have influential white allies seeking to preserve the status quo. If criticism is warranted here, it should be focused on national black politicians in general and note merely Cain.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that racism in America doesn’t exist, nor am I defending Cain against some very serious sexual allegations, anti-Muslim statements, or distasteful comments about immigrants. I do not support Herman Cain as a viable candidate for the US Presidency,as I disagree with almost everything he says from a policy perspective, but dismissing somebody as a political candidate is a significantly different undertaking than dismissing a person’s humanity. (See “Herman Cain’s use of racial language is rhetoric we must refuse”, by Ulli K. Ryder, NY Daily News.com, 23 October 11.)

As somebody who cherishes the creation and examination of black images in popular culture, I unconditionally support any effort to shed light on the images we see daily. However, by viewing Cain’s public behavior through a one dimensional prism while deliberately ignoring the other dimensions to his behavior which have also been part of the public sphere, the black pundits that blast Cain on his representation of blackness are unwittingly breathing new life into the thought process that gave us demeaning racial images in the first place.

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