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Drinking From the White Fountain: Tea Party Candidate Herman Cain Turns His Back on the African-American Community

In New Hampshire, the stump speech of presidential hopeful Herman Cain revealed him as an apologist for white racism.
 
 
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While stumping on the fundraising circuit in Nashua, New Hampshire last weekend, prospective Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain gave a speech right out of the black conservative playbook.

Cain spun a tale of his own childhood that was part Leave it to Beaver mated with a healthy dose of The Andy Griffith Show. He colorized these nostalgia-laden versions of Americana and whiteness -- lies wrapped around a fiction -- by adding an anecdote from his own experience as a young man encountering the evil that was Jim Crow America. In Cain's telling, he was denied admission to the University of Georgia based on his race,even though he ranked second in his high school class. Rather than show righteous anger and indignation at how his basic life chances were threatened by the (il)logic of white supremacy, Herman Cain "never lost faith in America" and oddly "found inspiration in the experience" as it reinforced the values his parents had instilled in him.

Cain's story jogged loose a memory from my own childhood. My grandmother, like Herman Cain's family, lived in the South during the height of Jim Crow segregation. As a black American of a different generation, I would often ask her about those years, and about our family's experiences from slavery to freedom. She was our family griot, passing down long-told vignettes of centuries past, as well as stories from the recent past about the civil rights movement (she was especially proud of how white men in our small town called my great uncle "sir" instead of "uncle" or "boy").

One theme she consistently returned to was that black folks are like everyone else: during our three centuries in the country some of us were heroic, others cowardly, some good, and some bad. But there was always a sense of linked fate and communal obligation. As black folks struggling to survive in a white supremacist society there was really no other option if we were to triumph and make American democracy whole. However, my grandmother always reminded me that while most honored the community that nurtured them and fought for our collective well-being, there were others whose minds had been poisoned by white racism. These sad souls were to be pitied, but also avoided.

In their roles as race pimps who deal from the bottom of the "race card" deck on behalf of the Republican party, Cain and many other popular black conservatives run from the history of communal struggle and obligation that is a mark of pride in the African-American community. Moreover, they recycle conservative fantasies of self-made men and women, the dime-novel Horatio Alger tale, and embrace the myth of meritocracy. The latter is doubly ironic for black conservatives given America's long history of economic, legal, social and political privileges that were -- and often still are -- the exclusive province of white people.

Just as Herman Cain did in his speech in New Hampshire, popular black conservatives perform their designated roles as mascots and apologists for white racism. They are "the good ones": black folks who do not complain or protest, who trust in white benevolence, and never rock the boat. Thus black conservatives fulfill a fantasy role for white conservatives who seek to minimize the role that centuries of discrimination, violent oppression and racism continue to play in contemporary American life.

For example, take this anecdote Cain told to Matt Lewis of the conservative Daily Caller Web site:

"We were at the bargain basement department store one day,” Cain told me recently, “and my mom was looking on the rack and we asked if we could go get some water. And mom specifically said, make sure you all drink out of the colored fountain. And then, typical young boys, we kind of went hmm, nobody’s looking." Cain continues, “My brother went first while I stayed on the lookout. Then he was on lookout while I sipped the white water."
I asked Cain what lesson he learned from this experience. “We looked at each other and said, the water tastes the same! What’s the big deal?"

Cain grabbed headlines in New Hampshire when he made a case for his presidential candidacy in racial terms. “There are some people who will say, ‘I’m not going to vote for another black guy because this one didn’t work out,’” Cain told his audience. “And my response is, well, what about those 43 white guys you put in there? How did they work out? Don’t condemn me because the first black one was bad.”

Cain's narrative, in which, like other conservatives, he is an island unto himself -- separate from social structures and institutions -- is exposed as a naked lie when his story is placed in context. Herman Cain's success rests on the shoulders of the many nameless people who struggled and marched so he could fully realize his freedom and citizenship. For example, Cain attended Purdue University at a time when student activists forced colleges and universities across the country to integrate. As the Tea Party GOP loves to point out, Cain enjoyed great success in corporate America because of his hard work and talent. But, he was also successful because of how black and brown folks (and their white allies), kicked down the doors of Wall Street and Main Street, as well as cracked the glass ceiling, so that people of color (and women) could enter and rise.

In response, Herman Cain and his brethren grin and shuffle for white conservatives by telling them that "black folks are on a Democratic plantation" or "liberals are slave-catchers of black people." When playing this role, black conservatives spit in the faces of the thousands (if not millions) of African Americans who struggled and died for the freedom and full citizenship of all people.

African Americans' disregard for black conservatives is not a rejection of the merits of principled, ideological diversity. Rather, it is a response to how many black conservatives denigrate the common sense and political sophistication of the African-American community in order to earn their bona fides with the Republican Party. A firm rejection of black conservatives is also a function of self-interest. Herman Cain is a frequent speaker at events hosted by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded group at the forefront of a successful effort in North Carolina's Wake County to end the desegregation of public schools. The Tea Party GOP is awash in the toxic fumes of white racial resentment, xenophobia and the neo-secessionist states' rights movement. These are efforts that do not serve the common good, and are especially noxious to the political health of black and brown folk.

Some have asked why I call black conservatives such as Herman Cain the "garbage pail kids" of American politics. It is not because they lack political vision. Nor is it a suggestion that black conservatives belong on the refuse pile of American history. I use this phrase because black conservatives have embraced a party that (especially given its current love of know-nothing politics) is hostile to a community to which they should have some nominal sense of attachment and commitment. With their ideology rejected by the African-American community, black conservatives are now quislings who seek solace in the arms of those who may hold people of color in low regard, but reward them for their novelty--and loyalty.

This critique of Herman Cain is not "just" about race or long-running political differences in the black community. No, this conversation is also about the reality that black conservatives are the spearhead and smokescreen for a range of policies that are hostile to the interests of the working- and middle-classes, and which support the dismantlement of the social safety net in this country.

Consider the following rogues' gallery and their relationship to the contemporary Tea Party GOP. Justice Clarence Thomas plays the role of an ethically embattled black golem who sleeps through hearings and only offers comment in support of the most draconian and right-wing positions. Juan Williams plays the role of a teeth-baring attack dog that slams NPR for "racism" and "elitism," thus legitimating the right's efforts to defund any media outlets that offer a voice contrary to Fox News. Michael Steele plays the "anti-Obama" -- a buffoon who promised to bring the "fried chicken" and "potato salad" in order to win the black vote. And Herman Cain plays the race minstrel, a projection of white fantasies and a magic salve that tells conservatives racism is gone, and any attacks against the Tea Party GOP that dare to suggest otherwise are dirty pool.

Ultimately, for any candidate running under the Tea Party brand, expressing reverence for the "Founding Fathers" and a cartoonish version of the U.S. Constitution is mandatory -- and, in this, Herman Cain, speaking in New Hampshire, did not disappoint. In a manner typical of "original intent" constitutional fetishists, Cain dodged any criticism which points out the obvious fact that the Founding Fathers were slave-holding hypocrites, and the Constitution itself was a pro-slavery document. But, then again, in Herman Cain's world, race-segregated drinking fountains did no harm; it's all about the water. In the very white world of the Tea Party, that reassurance is, no doubt, most welcome.

Chauncey DeVega is editor and founder of the blog, We Are Respectable Negroes, which has been featured by the New York Times, the Utne Reader, and The Atlantic. Writing under a pseudonym, DeVega writes essays on race, popular culture, and politics that have appeared in various books, as well as on such sites as the Washington Post's The Root and Popmatters.