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 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.
There are 40 million African Americans in this country. We are as diverse as any group of citizens. And we certainly have a stake in the issues of energy, security and health care. But electorates are selfish, and realistically, a candidate who doesn’t engage the specific interests of a group, however they’re defined, doesn’t usually win much of that group’s support. This is, significantly, the most frustrating aspect of Obama’s attempts to placate African Americans by highlighting what he has done for the country at large. The irony, of course, is that Obama is most likely wary of addressing black issues head-on because of the criticism he would receive from the kinds of white voters who are increasingly supporting Cain.
In any case, it became clear that something more than “brainwashing” was at play in recent days when Texas Gov. Rick Perry provided Cain with his own Jeremiah Wright moment — a point when race unavoidably injects itself into an otherwise raceless campaign. Recognizing the damning implications of applying the most radioactive epithet in the language to, of all things, a hunting camp, Perry’s campaign quickly denounced the word and insisted that the candidate had done all he could to literally whitewash the camp’s name with a coat of paint. Cain, a man who lived through segregation, made a milquetoast muttering about it being “insensitive,” but even that understatement was enough to provoke a riotous response among his supporters.
Indignant conservatives took to blogs and online discussions, denouncing Cain for “playing the race card” (while we’re on the subject of banned language, that cliche should’ve been outlawed long ago) and, unbelievably, defending Perry’s sign as not racist.
All this suggests that another, more curious kind of absolution is at work on the right this election season. It’s not one in which the country’s racial sins are forgiven, but one where blacks seek absolution for ever suspecting that there had been sins in the first place. At least that’s what it appeared to be when Cain played down his comments — the insensitivity of calling a slur insensitive.
At its most cynical, Cain’s campaign doesn’t offer redemption for the party associated with the Willie Horton ads, the terms “welfare queen” and “high-tech lynching,” and now “Niggerhead” so much as it suggests that there was never anything to be redeemed. Cain himself joined this mad parade of racial non-bigotry months earlier, saying he would ban Muslims from his Cabinet, or at least force them to sign special loyalty oaths. How can that be bigotry? A black guy said it.
The racial insurance policy that Cain’s candidacy offers to tea party conservatives who have been criticized as bigoted by some quarters is certainly not the entirety of his appeal. Nor was absolution the majority of Obama’s appeal to whites in 2008. But it is certainly part of it, and it works in the way that race most commonly does in this era, in subtle, inscrutable ways, maddeningly opaque, the exact extent of its influence difficult to determine.
Thus Cain’s ascent in the polls presents us with the tantalizing prospect, no matter how unlikely, that our next election will feature two African American men, neither of them post-racial but both somehow committed to publicly behaving as if we are. Cynicism, not racism, is now our foremost national sin. I plan to print up T-shirts reading “Election 2012: Vote for the Black Guy.” I expect to make a mint.
William Jelani Cobb is the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress” and an associate professor of Africana studies and history at Rutgers University.