According to every poll, a Mormon and a black man are now the Republican front-runners for president. That’s pretty amazing. But the bigger story is that neither candidate represents his people. Mitt Romney has to defeat a fellow Mormon, Jon Huntsman, in the primaries. Herman Cain, if nominated, would face Barack Obama in the general election. Romney is nothing like Huntsman. Cain is nothing like Obama.
I don’t know whether this four-way fight will produce a winner. But I know what it will destroy: stereotypes.
We tend to think of prejudice as the denial of equality. That’s one aspect of prejudice, as Obama noted yesterday in his speech honoring the new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. But prejudice is also the denial of difference. It’s a failure to recognize each person as an individual rather than as a projected average of a group. And the most effective cure for this failure isn’t to see blacks and whites, or Mormons and evangelicals, holding hands. It's to watch two blacks or two Mormons go at each other.
When Obama ran for president, opponents associated him with black leftists and radicals. Bill Clinton brushed off Obama’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary by comparing it to Jesse Jackson’s. Republicans depicted Obama as an extension of angry preacher Jeremiah Wright. Newt Gingrich, echoing Dinesh D’Souza, suggested that Obama’s actions were “outside our comprehension” because they reflected “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.” Obama’s actual behavior—abstaining from racial appeals during the campaign, stiffing the Congressional Black Caucus, escalating drone warfare around the world, and offering a debt-reduction deal with spending cuts but no tax-rate hikes—defied these comparisons.
Cain fits the stereotype even less. Newsweek quotes a series of black critics—Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Boyce Watkins—who call Cain callous to the poor, “Jimmy Stewart in blackface,” and “the perfect racist.” Harry Belafonte likens Cain to Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, complaining that whites “believe this black man is the real deal. He isn’t. Anyone who says what he says isn’t.”
That’s a clear assertion of black orthodoxy. And Cain, just as clearly, rejects it. Yesterday on Meet the Press, Cain said he prefers to be called a “black American,” not an African-American, “because my roots go back through slavery in this country. Yes, they came from Africa, but the roots of my heritage are in the United States.” Cain praised Justice Clarence Thomas and boasted that unlike Obama, “My mother was a maid, my father was a barber and janitor and a chauffeur. … I have run small businesses. I have actually made pizzas, made hamburgers. I've actually had to do the inventory, clean the parking lot.”
No matter what you think of Cain or Obama, the airing of these differences in background and outlook has an important social effect. It shows that Jackson, Thomas, West, Powell, Belafonte, Rice, Obama, Wright, and Cain think differently. It debunks the black monolith.
A similar diversity is emerging among Mormons. My Slate colleagues Jacob Weisberg and Christopher Hitchens worry about Mormon myths, dogmas, and practices. Five years ago, Weisberg argued:
The world's greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor. The Church of Latter-day Saints is expanding rapidly and liberalizing in various ways, but it remains fundamentally an orthodox creed with no visible reform wing. … Romney has never publicly indicated any distance from church doctrine. He is an "elder" who performed missionary service in France as a young man and did not protest the church's overt racism and priestly discrimination before it was abolished in 1978.
Hitchens extends this critique. He calls Mormonism a “weird and sinister belief system” and argues that Romney “should be asked to defend and explain himself, and his voluntary membership in one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.”