In the 21st century, the black Republican is a rare creature, even when you count those of moderate views such as Colin Powell. Rarer still is the tea-partying, tax-cutting, Obama-dissing black conservative like Herman Cain, who is currently occupying the anybody-but-Mitt chair in the GOP presidential parlor game.
There are sound reasons for the scarcity of black tea partyers. A fight-the-federal-government philosophy doesn’t appeal to the vast majority of black Americans, who have depended on federal intervention to save them from the tyranny of state law and the violence of local custom — especially in the Deep South. Furthermore, even a handful of tea party protesters holding up overtly racist signs — President Obama dressed as a witch doctor, for example — would be enough to persuade most black voters that the group isn’t serving any tea they’d like to drink.
Still, Cain’s politics have obscured a fundamental truth: His upbringing, his resourcefulness and his self-reliance are common among the black middle class. His corporate success may be unusual, but the values that propelled him are not.
In his new campaign autobiography, “This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House,” the businessman-turned-talk-radio-host noted that his mother, Lenora, worked as a maid, while his father, Luther, chauffeured one of Atlanta’s richest businessmen, Robert Woodruff, CEO of Coca-Cola. His dad worked additional jobs, Cain said, in order to buy a house.
Cain’s parents valued education and church attendance. They emphasized self-respect. They expected him to hew the line of respectful and orderly behavior.
Cain has drawn some criticism for the revelation that he avoided the civil rights protests that marked his adolescent and college years; in his autobiography, he suggests that was due to his father’s admonition to “stay out of trouble.”
But that’s hardly surprising in the context of the times, given a movement whose success was hardly pre-ordained.
We rightly honor the heroes, such as Julian Bond and John Lewis, who put their lives on the line to dramatize the ugliness of Jim Crow and force political change. But countless black men and women of Cain’s day chose the safer route, including many black professionals and businessmen who didn’t want to risk their relative comfort by confronting white authority.
In short, there is nothing about Cain’s early years that is rare. I know countless black Americans who were reared in much the same way.
My parents, like Cain’s, taught me to excel at academics, to work hard and to respect authority. They taught me to love my country. And they went out of their way to ensure that the overt racism I encountered didn’t leave me angry or bitter.
That’s important as a counter to Cain’s tiresome echoing and reinforcement of hoary old stereotypes. Apparently, it’s not enough that he absolve right-wing conservatives of racism. He has gone further — trading in ugly prejudices that disparage black Americans.
He has, for example, called black Americans “brainwashed” for their failure to support Republican candidates. He has cozied up to birthers who insist that Obama was not born in this country. And, worse still, he has engaged in some offensive stereotypes about those who are less successful than he.
“People sometimes hold themselves back because they want to use racism as an excuse for them not being able to achieve what they want to achieve,” Cain recently told CNN’s Candy Crowley.
That’s one of the dumbest things I ever heard. Many notable black critics -- Bill Cosby comes to mind — have decried the poor choices and bad habits that have exacerbated black poverty. But it takes either spectacular cynicism or sheer idiocy to say the average black high school dropout stopped going to school so he could “use racism as an excuse” for his unemployment.
Quiet as it’s kept, black Americans are more optimistic about the future than white Americans, according to polls. They see racism receding, testimony to the powerful symbolic effect of Obama’s election.
By suggesting otherwise, Cain has not only disrespected the views and beliefs of mainstream black Americans, but he has also offended voters whose support he might have hoped to win. Let’s hope he doesn’t represent the future of black Republicanism.
Cynthia Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.