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