David Swerdlick and John McWhorter are debating the significance of Herman Cain, with McWhorter concluding that:
Are they embracing him just because he allows them to disavow racism? Let's say there's some of that -- but then the same people who would make this charge are surely aware, and often say, that the whites who embraced Obama had a lot of that in them as well. Herman Cain is a black man -- and not a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner type -- being embraced by, of all people, Republicans. After all, wouldn't we expect Republicans to be swooning for another "not too black" type instead?
Well, to this point, Obama found his white guilt vote embarrassing and tried to discourage it, while Cain talks like he's one bad fundraising quarter away from selling indulgences. Swerdlick responds:
Cain's views simply aren't winning ones. And most black voters are negatively disposed toward him because of those views -- not because of blind loyalty Obama or to Democrats.
You can call it progress that a portion of the white electorate is backing Cain because, as McWhorter says, "they cannot be under any impression that an outspokenly Republican black person is going to 'lead' black America and serve as a role model." But actually, as the New Republic's Ed Kilgore explains, "Cain has become not a role model but an implicit living rebuke to his fellow African-Americans, who have, in the imaginations of many white conservatives," let liberals lead them around by the nose.
Unsurprisingly, I think Swerdlick is more on the mark, and I think Kilgore is even more on the mark. For one thing, no one's arguing that Republicans are so racist that they'd chafe against the mere idea of supporting a black candidate. Rather, what's irritating about Cain is that he rhetorically pits his own success against the black masses and finds himself uniquely impressive, telling The Root that "one of the reasons that I succeeded in corporate America is that I did not try to climb the corporate ladder with a victim attitude" and that " think that one of the things that holds a lot of black Americans back in terms of succeeding in business and corporate America is that they have a victim's attitude." Cain's victim attitude on the other hand, is quite selective--he thinks there's a government conspiracy to commit black genocide through abortion.
The idea that because overt racism is mostly a thing of the past, and what's holding black people back is "a victim's attitude" is a cornerstone of conservative thinking and even a certain strain of black populism, but this too is a strawman. A whopping 3 percent of black Americans believe that "race or ethnic background" is the most important factor for opportunity. We've seen few op-eds musing about the possibility that whites' growing sense of racial victimhood will hold them back, mostly because there's no need to rationalize the results of centuries of discriminatory policies against them. There's no market in white guilt to be exploited there.
That brings me to the other reason I suspect Cain doesn't appeal to black voters other than the obvious (he's a Republican). Despite McWhorter's argument that Cain is a symbol of progress, I think to most people statements like Democrats "are doubly scared that a real black man might run against Barack Obama," and "it may shock you, but some black people can think for themselves," reflect a rather tired stagnation when it comes to Republicans and race. That is, black people looking to succeed in the Republican Party must bear the responsibility of the GOP's race problems. That's not a burden that appeals to the vast majority of blacks, even those who might believe in the Laffer Curve.
Cain's attacks on the president's racial authenticity meanwhile, don't just fall flat--they're ridiculous. Ain't no Herman Cain t-shirts being sold on U Street or 125th and Lex. There's something bizarre about Cain saying Obama isn't a "strong black man" to a delighted, mostly conservative audience thrilled at the prospect of Cain saying something they feel they aren't allowed to.