The GOP's 'My Best Friend Is Black' Strategy
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In a pitiable field of prospective 2012 Republican presidential nominees, Herman Cain has found a way to stand out from the pack. How? He has learned to play the “black best friend” to the GOP (and its Tea Party base). While Cain’s portrayal of this role is deft, it is also old wine in a new bottle. On one hand, Cain’s campaign is ostensibly “colorblind” and has nothing to do with his novelty as a self-described “American Black Conservative.” Yet when given the opportunity, Cain portrays a benign, friendly version of “authentic” blackness that he panders to his white, racially reactionary supporters on the Right.
The evidence for how racial resentment is the engine that drives the contemporary Republican Party and its Tea Party wing is overwhelming. Public opinion data suggests that the most ideological conservatives are more likely to believe that people of color are lazy and less intelligent than whites, and the anecdotal evidence would appear to bear that out. From the racist signs seen at Tea Party rallies and bigoted emails circulated among some Tea Party types that describe Barack Obama as a monkey, to the enduring phenomena of “Birtherism” and xenophobia, all indicators point to a deep antipathy towards the very idea that a black man is President of the United States of America.But, in the Age of Obama and a post-Civil Rights era multicultural America, naked appeals to white racism are political liabilities that must be couched in dog whistles (the New Right’s addiction to myopic nostalgia, the “good old days,” and a simplistic view of “American exceptionalism”) and subtle appeals (Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen; he is a “socialist,” or most provocatively, “anti-white”). Consequently, even the right-wing in American politics has been forced to embrace a theatrical type of multiculturalism where they are hyper-sensitive to having brown and black faces in high places—see the Michael Steeles, Clarence Thomas’s and Juan Williams’s of the world—and at their political rallies where the number of prominently displayed black and brown folks on stage and in the audience can be counted on one person’s fingers and toes.
Herman Cain is the latest iteration in the empty symbolic politics of racial inclusion offered by the New Right and the Tea Party GOP. He is a salve and a balm that works because of a facile understanding of racism that emphasizes unkind words, and overt acts of violence and hate (as opposed to institutional power and social structures). In much the same way that whites who are caught in a racial peccadillo can use either the “my best friend is black” defense or say they are not racist because they "have friends who are minorities," Cain offers the GOP and its Tea Party wing an easy shield against charges that their policies are hostile to people of color, as well as that their overt rage and meanness toward President Obama’s very personhood is driven by a pathological and bigoted white populism.
Cain’s manipulation of the “my best friend is black” strategy also operates on a deeper level. For example, two weeks ago in the battle royale among the pundit classes over Cornel West’s critique of Barack Obama and his apparent lack of commitment to the black community, America was witness to a powerful debate about race and identity--one that usually occurs within minority communities and not as a spectacle for public consumption. Flying under the radar, Herman Cain has also been participating in a conversation about black authenticity. However, it has been occurring on a parallel track and for the benefit of a quite different audience.