The GOP's 'My Best Friend Is Black' Strategy

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.

Herman Cain routinely emphasizes his racial identity as a black conservative. In fact, Cain has gone so far as to suggest that he is a "real” black man compared to Barack Obama, who is apparently some type of black imposter. 

It naturally follows that one must ask: What type of black man is Herman Cain modeling for his conservative, right-wing public?

Apparently, to Cain, a real black man is an apologist for white racism who tells conservatives that they are always innocent of such charges—despite the prima facie evidence to the contrary. For Cain, a real black man makes light of Jim Crow and tells white audiences that segregated water fountains were not that bad because “the water tastes the same.” A real black man apparently supports the Koch brothers-funded group Americans for Prosperity and its efforts to stop school desegregation.

Real black men in Herman Cain’s world abuse the memory of their ancestors, as well as the twin legacies of chattel slavery and the hellish transatlantic slave trade by routinely suggesting that African Americans who do not support the Republican Party are on a plantation, and that black conservatives are somehow heroic “freedom fighters” and “runaway” slaves.

And perhaps most disturbingly, for Herman Cain a real black man is also a person who channels the radically progressive vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to support onerous policies that would destroy the social safety net and suggest there should be a new Civil Rights movement in this country whose goal should be to free America from Barack Obama’s “tyrannical rule.”

In sum, Herman Cain’s “real black man” does not challenge power, never rocks the boat, and is complicit with the forces of white racism--all the while validating a delusional, white conservative version of American history (and playing the fantasy role of what some white folks want to imagine black personhood and humanity to be).

Herman Cain’s campaign is a curiosity that speaks to the bizarre (yet nonetheless utterly predictable) white backlash that has greeted the Age of Obama. As one more act in the theater of the absurd that is the New Right Tea Party GOP, at present there is a belief held by some that white people are being oppressed by a virulent strain of reverse-racism, one that is a greater social problem than any of the historical discrimination that people of color have experienced in the United States.

There is a telling moment at the end of Herman Cain's recently released campaign video where he smiles and embraces his public. Cain, a black dot in a sea of white humanity, wades forth and passionately hugs a crying white man in the audience. The symbolic power of that moment is not to be lost. Cain signals in an age of imagined  oppression of white people, when white folks are “suffering” so badly, that he will make it all go away. By metaphor and extension, Herman Cain is the long sought after black Confederate whose mere existence disproves that the CSA and the Slaveocracy were first and foremost institutions based upon and committed to white supremacy. Ultimately, Cain, an “authentic” black man and conservative, is the path to racial reconciliation and reunion for the America dreamed of by the Republican Party and its Tea Party base.

Herman Cain may be the right man at the right time. If he can ride the early stages of the nomination process out and win a few debates, Cain may very well have replaced the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy with the “my best friend is black” campaign. In a field of true mediocrities that has more in common with a carnival sideshow, Herman Cain’s success may be no small feat. 


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