Herman Cain's Islamophobia: Why does he treat Muslims the way racists treat blacks?

How you look at things.
June 16 2011 9:37 AM

Colored Judgment

Why does Herman Cain think about Muslims the way racists think about blacks?

Herman Cain. Click image to expand.
Herman Cain

Herman Cain says Republicans should nominate him for president in part because " my candidacy would take race off the table." Cain, a former CEO and president of the National Restaurant Association, is black. Therefore, he argues, he can't be accused of prejudice when he criticizes President Obama.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It's a plausible argument, as far as race goes. But prejudice is bigger than race. Prejudice gets peeled one layer at a time. You give black men the vote but don't see why ladies need it. You open the military to women but can't imagine homosexuals defending your country. You congratulate yourself on being an enlightened liberal even as you ridicule Mormons.

Or, if you're Cain, you rise from segregation and defy black political stereotypes while treating Muslims with the same crude bias that was once applied to you.

Three months ago, Scott Keyes of Think Progress asked Cain: " Would you be comfortable appointing a Muslim, either in your cabinet or as a federal judge?" Cain answered: "No, I will not. And here's why. There is this creeping attempt … to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government."

A few days ago, during the GOP debate in New Hampshire, Cain denied having said this. "The statement was, would I be comfortable with a Muslim in my administration, not that I wouldn't appoint one," Cain told John King. "That's the exact transcript."

No, it isn't. The video clearly shows Cain saying, " I will not." If he had been talking about discomfort, he would have said, "I would not." And in case his meaning wasn't clear enough, here's video of him a few days later, saying: " I was asked by a reporter, would I appoint a Muslim to my cabinet? I said no." And again, in another video: " I made the statement that I would not put a Muslim in my cabinet, or in my administration." And again, on Fox News: " A reporter asked me, would I appoint a Muslim to my administration? I did say no."

Cain is familiar with this kind of group exclusion. It was done to him 60 years ago. He had to sit in the back of the bus and drink from "colored" water fountains. He graduated second in his high school class but was refused admission by the University of Georgia. It didn't matter how smart Cain was or how hard he worked. He was black, and the white society around him had decided that blacks were inferior. He was treated as a member of a group, not as an individual. In a word, he was prejudged.

Today, the Ku Klux Klan is still around, but its racism has become more sophisticated. It uses data. "The black male is the greatest perpetrator of both petty crimes and violent crimes in the black communities," says a Klan Web site. Even "Jesse Jackson said that when he's walking down the street at night and he hears footsteps behind him, he's relieved to turn around and see a white person instead of a black person." From this, the Klan concludes, "Minorities … as a people (though there are always exceptions to the rule) are incapable of maintaining or even comprehending the rule of law and order."

That's how prejudice works in the information age. You use statistical averages  to generate stereotypes  and ultimately to justify differential treatment of people by category.

This is what Cain is now doing to Muslims. Last week, Glenn Beck asked him whether Muslims would have to show " loyalty proof" to serve in a Cain administration. Cain said yes. Beck pressed: "Would you do that to a Catholic, or would you do that to a Mormon?" Cain replied: "Nope, I wouldn't. Because there is a greater dangerous part of the Muslim faith than there is in these other religions."

If you measure dangerousness by sympathy for al-Qaida or the belief that suicide bombing can be justified, it's true that Muslims are, on average, more dangerous. It's a silly way to think, since this is just an average, and the percentages are very low. Islamic faith, per se, tells you nothing about the individual. But Cain doesn't want to take chances. "This nation is under attack constantly by people who want to kill all of us," he told CNN's John King shortly after the Beck show. Therefore, Cain concluded, "I am going to take extra precautions if a Muslim person who is competent wants to work in my administration."

The same goes for Sharia. "Many of the Muslims, they are not totally dedicated to this country," Cain told Neil Cavuto. "Many of them are trying to force Sharia law on the people of this country. And, so, yes, I did say it [that I wouldn't appoint a Muslim], and that is because I don't have time to be watching someone on my administration if they are not totally committed to the Declaration and the Constitution." On Laura Ingraham's radio show, Cain added: "I don't want any inkling of anybody in my administration who would put Sharia law over American law. … I don't want anybody in my administration that I'm going to have to be looking over my shoulder to figure out if they are going to try to do something against the principles that I believe in."

Hence the loyalty test or, better yet, simple exclusion of Muslims. It spares Cain the trouble of evaluating them individually and eliminates the risk that a bad one might slip through. It saves him time and worry, just as segregation relieved the University of Georgia of having to evaluate Cain's college application.

When Cain was growing up, whites used their majority status not just to hold power but to claim authority. Now Cain is in the Christian majority, and he's leveraging that power to keep Muslims in their place. " We are a Judeo-Christian nation," he told Christianity Today. "One percent of the practicing religious believers in this country are Muslim. And so I push back and reject them trying to convert the rest of us. … I do not want us, as a nation, to lose our Judeo-Christian identity." On Ingraham's show, Cain said of Muslim U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison: "If you take an oath on the Quran, that means that you support Sharia law. I support American law.Our laws were derived from principles that are biblically based." If Cain gets his way, public servants will swear on a holy book, but it'll be Christian: " Anybody that takes the oath of office in a Herman Cain administration will put their hand on the Bible, not the Koran."

Now that Cain has climbed the corporate ladder and is running for president, he faces a new kind of racism: the assumption that a black man must be liberal. Cain ridicules this stereotype. " Some black people can think for themselves," he says.

But Muslims? They all think alike. "I have not found a Muslim that has said that they will denounce Sharia law [and] support the Constitution," Cain told Ingraham. In another interview, he explained: "The reason I made the statement that I would not put a Muslim in my cabinet, or in my administration, is because I want people that are dedicated to the Constitution. … I don't know one Muslim who will denounce Sharia Law and then say that they can support the Constitution."

Cain's distrust doesn't stop at Muslims. He's skeptical of foreign heritage in general. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Cain called President Obama " an international" and argued that "he's out of the mainstream and always has been. Look, he was raised in Kenya, his mother was white from Kansas, and her family had an influence on him, it's true, but his dad was Kenyan." Speaking at a Georgia church, Cain recalled the time he went in for surgery with a doctor named Abdallah. Cain asked the doctor's assistant: " That sounds a little foreign. What is that?" She replied:  "He's from Lebanon. … But don't worry, he's a Christian." Upon hearing this, Cain told the congregants: "I said Amen. I felt a whole lot better."

But feeling better is exactly the problem. It isn't Cain's discomfort that should worry us. It's his comfort. He thinks he has risen above prejudice. He thinks his experience of discrimination protects him from doing to others what was done to him. He doesn't recognize in himself the same habits of group judgment, blindness to individual differences, and majoritarian claims to national identity.

This doesn't make Cain a bad person. It just means that he, like the rest of us, still has a lot to learn.

(Readings I recommend: Zuhdi Jasser in the Daily Caller urges Cain to distinguish aggressive "Islamists" from Muslims who respect the Constitution. Tim Murphy in Mother Jones debunks Cain's claim that a Texas court allowed Sharia to override U.S. law. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic calls Cain's loyalty test preposterous since " an actual terrorist would lie." Robert George at Mirror of Justice  warns Cain that his challenge to Islamic religious freedom could threaten Catholics. Roger Simon at Politico notes with dismay that " the entire Republican field to date refused to speak out for Muslim-Americans" in Monday's GOP debate. Peter Wehner in Commentary calls on the Republican candidates to condemn Cain's " indiscriminate attacks on American Muslims." And check out the Battle of the Black Conservatives, in which Alan Keyes points out that Cain's proposed test to ascertain Muslims' loyalty to the Constitution is itself unconstitutional.)

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