In 1992, I voted in my first presidential election. I was in second grade and my teacher led us young, hopeful voters down the hall to the school library to cast our vote. It was the year of George H. W. Bush, Ross Perot, and Bill Clinton. Without a moment’s hesitation, I hole-punched my vote for Brother Bill and I’ve been a Democrat ever since. Looking back, I can’t say politics were heavily discussed in my house, and if they were, I wouldn’t have noticed because my head would have most likely been buried in the latest Babysitter’s Club book. Whether it was chattering adults or ethereal intervention, I have always felt that the Democratic party best reflected my interests—even as an eight year old—but never simply as a Black person.
My voting history must be defended because every election period a Republican challenges Black people’s voting autonomy by suggesting Blacks only vote Democrat because we think we have to. Herman Cain has become that conservative cheerleader to try recruiting Black folks to the Republican ticket. His take: we’ve been brainwashed into aligning ourselves with the “Democratic plantation.” However, before Cain could tap dance off his soapbox, he was hit with a dose of realism. And by realism, I mean racism. Just after announcing Black people were brainwashed Democrats, Cain revealed Rick Perry’s family leases a hunting camp that locally goes by the name N****rhead. Clearly expecting other Republicans and the general public to get in line with his indignation and potentially knock Perry out of the running, Cain was left standing as the Black man holding the race card. Based on his logic, that almost sounds like something a Democrat would do. I’d imagine rule one of being a Black republican is to not talk about race and, in essence, act as if you live in your own personal post-racial utopia.
To settle the feathers he’d ruffled with the N****rhead controversy, Cain took a new approach. He appears to have become the Black guy that says all the things he thinks white people believe about Black people. From joking about his codename being cornbread to shouting “shucky ducky” at rallies, Cain is essentially reintroducing Americans to Uncle Remus—the safe, kindly, folkloric Black man who lives sit white folks on his knee and regale them with stories of a more comforting past. As much as Cain’s hijinks should make us all cringe, is he 100% at fault? Short answer: yes, but Cain’s conduct on the campaign trail also opens the conversation to exploring the impact of how we deal with race influences an individual’s racial awareness and tolerance—even when that person is raced himself.
If we think about the blatantly racist, and more subtlety racist, comments and images made against President Obama and First Lady Obama in the last handful of years, Cain could be taking the ammunition out of his competition and conservative pundits falling back on racial undertones to diminish his presidential prospect. From the campaign trail to his time in office, the President has had racist stereotypes and assumptions instigated on him as proof of his inferiority or incompetence.
By brandishing anti-Black stereotypes and using other Blacks as scapegoats for an otherwise prejudicial social and institutional system, Cain not only positions himself as the “safe Black guy” or “model minority,” but he also makes a mockery of the work being done to achieve racial equality and the often oppressive nature of living Black in the United States. As more of the conservative (and perhaps, independents and disenfranchised liberals) voting public seem to be buying Cain’s magic elixir that dissolves real conversations on race, immigration rights, gay rights, and other pressing social issues, it is important to recognize that we, in fact, do not live in a post-socially problematic society. Having a Black person make plantation analogies, joke about killing immigrants, and embrace white folks with questionable racial politics is not post-racial. It is dangerous, however, and very scary, especially if you think about where social policies could go under that person’s leadership.
The possibility of President Obama and Herman Cain both resting on the 2012 ticket speaks to America’s unique malleability to change. However, as Cain attempts to garner (white) votes through vaudevillian performances and challenging Obama to a battle of Blackness, he keeps us regressive as a country. In an era where the United States should see its success in moving forward, Cain and supporters of his Dixie Dance are asking for failure as they grasp at a sepia-toned past.
(Side note: Having watched Herman Cain stand proudly in his self-prescribed tokenism, these last few months, I reflected on Frantz Fanon’s essay, “The Fact of Blackness,” where many Black folks have to navigate multiple Black selves in a society that has made us very conscious of our “otherness.”)