Some weeks ago, as I was conducting research for a book on anti-communism, I happened upon a political ad for the 1952 presidential election. The ad was notable for two reasons: It appeared in an African American newspaper, and it said in bold letters, “Let’s face it — a vote for the Democrats is a vote for Jim Crow.” This was followed by an explanation of why blacks should support the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket.
In 1952 the Democratic Party suffered from a kind of split-personality disorder, vying for votes among Northern blacks who favored desegregation and Southern whites who strongly opposed it. Its presidential ticket reflected that tension, pairing the liberal Adlai Stevenson with Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama, whose record of opposition to civil rights was well known (and listed in the GOP ad for any who might have forgotten it).
The New Jersey governor announces he will stay out of the presidential race.
The ad was a cynical manipulation — Eisenhower was no civil rights advocate — but that’s nearly beside the point. What is most notable is that the Republican Party was sincere in its cynicism. This was a bona fide effort, if not to win over black voters, then to at least dampen their enthusiasm for the Democrats. It’s a stark contrast to the Grand Old Party’s current non-approach to African American voters. And this makes Herman Cain’s recent surge in the GOP polls all the more notable.
Cain’s poll numbers are improving, he finished first in a Florida straw poll, and he seems to be an early front-runner in a handful of states that will hold primaries after the nominee has probably been already decided. But the most telling element of this rise is what his candidacy says — or doesn’t say — about the state of race in this country.
Three years ago, Barack Obama’s emergence as the front-runner in the Democratic primaries was widely understood as a barometer for race in the United States. His election spawned furious speculation that we had become a “post-racial” society. Yet his approach to governing highlights the ways in which these ideas were premature, or at least far more complicated than was generally acknowledged at the zenith of Obamamania.
The administration has been loath to address race directly, leading to tensions with some African Americans who think the president is either less willing or less able to address our specific needs than a white Democrat would be. Thus it became easy to believe that the white liberals who voted for Obama did so, in part, as a means of achieving cheap absolution for the nation’s racial sins.
That Cain’s campaign is so studiously scrubbed free of race is a commentary on the very racialization he eschews. His Web site features his stances on immigration, national security, taxation, energy and health care. There is no reference to civil rights concerns, disproportionate incarceration or what is, at this point, a racialized unemployment crisis. This is curious only because, unlike the other Republican candidates, Cain believes that he can win a solid third of the black vote. Late last month he said blacks have been “brainwashed” into voting for Democrats (always a smart move to insult the intelligence of people whose votes you’re seeking). But it would require a specific kind of brainwashing — the doctrine that epidermal allegiance should trump actual political interests — for Cain to win a third of an electorate whose key issues don’t even crack the top 10 on his Web site.