But maybe the Tea Party shouldn’t be so cheery, says Christopher Parker. He’s an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington. In 2010, he was the lead investigator on an academic study of the Tea Party and race. The academics surveyed 117 “true believers” of the movement, alongside hundreds of “true skeptics,” people with mixed opinions, and people who didn’t know about the movement. Parker found that Tea Partiers held generally more negative views of blacks and Hispanics, measured in a number of ways.
One of Parker’s test statements was: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors.” Seventy percent of all white people in the study agreed; 88 percent of Tea Partiers agreed. Another statement: “If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” Fifty-six percent of all white people agreed, and 73 percent of Tea Partiers. These are the kind of sentiments that Cain has voiced as he’s been asked about race. “He has an inspiring story,” says Parker. It doesn’t change the study’s conclusions.
“Just because you have one person who can be an exception to your view doesn't mean the view is blunted,” says Parker. “He can be seen as an exceptional negro who defies stereotypes. A group may have less charitable opinions about race, but there are always going to be a few token black folks who they like. Herman Cain just happens to be the token this time.”
This is the ivory tower version of a debate older than Booker T. Washington—a debate that won’t be over even if Cain surprises us. In 2007 and 2008, black news sites and politics blogs were all over the rise of Barack Obama. In 2011, the rise of Cain is treated like an oddity. “Don’t get fooled by that tap-dancing he’s doing for white Republicans,” writes Brentin Mock at Loop21, introducing a list of silly stories from Cain’s autobiography. “He is way blacker then he's cared to admit on the campaign trail.” At Jack and Jill Politics, Anson Asaka calls the candidate “Uncle Herman Cain,” and says his lack of interest in civil rights issues disqualifies him as a credible leader. “He stayed in his place,” writes Asaka, “at the back of the bus.”
This is a sentiment that Steele understands pretty well.
“Anyone who sits up here and thinks, ‘Let’s put Herman Cain against Barack Obama and we'll win,’ is so stupid that he should sit in his cellar and play around on the Internet or something,” says Steele. “Voters are more sophisticated than that. Come on, now: Do you think black folks got up the day after I was elected and said, ‘Oh my God, there’s a black Republican Party chairman! I’ve got to join the Republicans!’” Steele laughs at the idea. “They’re not saying ‘Herman Cain is on the rise, let's take a second look at that party!’ People aren't like that.”