Back in July, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain told Fox News that the “race card is now a joke, because a lot of American people have figured it out.” It’s a sentiment he’s repeated frequently, arguing that Democrats cry racism to paper over President Obama’s faults.

Herman Cain waits in the "green room" before delivering a speech at the Value Voters Summit 2011 on Friday. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Part of Cain’s appeal is his ability, as a black man, to tell white voters that race is no longer an issue, even as he invokes race to criticize liberals and Democrats.

Cain’s words have been embraced by conservatives who are defensive about racism. But when he’s strayed from that line of thinking, he’s been attacked by the same people for “playing the race card.”

“The way in which he invokes race is in its most benign way, with the most benign assurances. He confirms conservative views about how race functions in the political domain,” said Dr. Eddie Glaude, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton. “I think it’s just political chicanery.”

Cain has said he thinks he can get a third of the black vote — not because he is black, but because of his policies. More specifically, he has said that two-thirds of blacks were “brainwashed” into supporting President Obama and the Democratic Party.

While he grew up in Georgia during the civil-rights movement, Cain rarely references this history.

“One of the most important lessons Dad taught us was not to feel like victims,” Cain wrote. “And both our parents taught us not to think that the government owed us something. They didn’t teach us to be mad at this country.”

Cain does not question whether the GOP has done anything to alienate black voters. Instead, he argues that African-Americans who won’t consider voting Republican aren’t thinking for themselves.

”African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in September.

It’s a contrast with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and other black Republicans who have argued that the party needs to reach out more.

Cain often uses questions from liberals on race as a foil. Sometimes such questions play into his hands, as when MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell criticized Cain for not being more active in the civil-rights movement. The left-leaning white host was condemned by observers across the ideological spectrum for lecturing a survivor of segregation on human rights.

At the Values Voters summit a day later, Cain referenced a reporter who has asked whether he was “angry about how America has treated you.”

“I said: ‘Sir, you don’t get it. I have achieved all of my American dreams and then some because of the great nation United States of America. What’s there to be angry about? Angry?”

His words were met with an standing ovation from the mostly white crowd, maybe the most enthusiastic response of the day. But with unemployment among African-Americans at double what it is for whites, it’s unlikely that message will resonate much with black voters.

“I don’t believe racism in this country holds anybody back in a big way,” Cain said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.

Cain has also argued against accusations of racism in the tea party movement. “You are not a racist, you are patriots,” he told the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year.

Cain is also not afraid to use race to criticize his opponents. Cain once said that President Obama is not “a strong black man,” adding, “A real black man is not timid about making the right decisions. When he was mocked on “The Daily Show” by Jon Stewart for saying he wouldn’t sign a bill longer than three pages, Cain told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that it was “because I’m black.”

When Cain criticized fellow Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, he was condemned.

A week ago, the Washington Post published a story on a hunting camp leased by Perry that featured a rock painted with a racial epithet. Cain was asked about the issue and said that leaving the word exposed for some time was “a sign of insensitivity.”

The lone black man in the GOP race was quickly attacked by conservative bloggers and radio hosts for “playing the race card.” A day later, Cain walked back his initial remarks, saying, “I really don’t care about that word,”he explained. “They painted over it. End of story!”

But he also seemed to express some frustration with his critics. “All I said was the mere fact that that word was there was ‘insensitive.’ That’s not playing the race card.”

In some ways, Cain is in the same position as Obama, who has largely ignored racial issues since taking office — leading some black voters to wonder if a white president would be more responsive to their needs. Both are forced to tread a narrow path on race or risk a political backlash.