Herman Cain Shall Overcome

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 16 2011 9:36 AM

Herman Cain Shall Overcome

Really, the GOP's only semi-declared candidate for president -- its only African-American candidate -- couldn't have plotted it better. His speech at CPAC hadn't gotten a ton of attention, but it drew the ire of Chauncey DeVega . An occasional contributor to the Root, an African-American progressive, DeVega unloaded on Cain:

Herman Cain’s shtick is a version of race minstrelsy where he performs "authentic negritude" as wish fulfillment for White Conservative fantasies. Like the fountain at Lourdes, Cain in his designated role as black Conservative mascot, absolves the White racial reactionaries at CPAC of their sins. This is a refined performance that Black Conservatives have perfected over many decades and centuries of practice.

Let’s consider the routine. First, Cain enters the stage to Motown music.* Then Cain feigns swimming after rolling up his sleeves to show them his black skin and how he is a hardworking negro (not like those other ones). Cain bellows in a preacher affected voice and channels the folksy negro down home accent of his late grandpappy. In the money shot, Cain gives the obligatory "black folks who are not Republicans are on the plantation" speech to the joyous applause of his White benefactors. And he doubles down by legitimating any opposition to President Barack Obama as virtuous and patriotic regardless of the bigoted well-springs from which it may flow.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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Now: There is nearly no safe way for African-American progressives to say this stuff about African-American conservatives. Emerge magazine published plenty of great articles, but the one thing everyone remembers about it is the cover with Clarence Thomas as a "lawn jockey for the far right." And it's probably too obvious for DeVega to have pointed out, but one element of the Black Republican's appeal is his appeal to inspire rhetoric offensive to liberal whites. (Michael Steele played this card in his 2006 Senate campaign; at one point he blew up when Steny Hoyer said he followed George W. Bush "slavishly.") Thus: Cain pieces in the Washington Times, Pajamas Media ("it's a racist attack on a good man"), and Andrew Breitbart's Big Journalism -- the latter piece got a fresh DeVega-slamming quote from the black conservative group CORE. Cain will do a mini-media tour today, starting with Neal Boortz's radio show.

Tangent: It's at moments like these when I think Haley Barbour can overcome his occasional slipperiness when asked about racial issues. The dynamics of white-conservative-accused-of-racism and black-conservative-accused-of-self-hatred are different, but they come from the same place -- a place of outrage that liberals get to frame these issues.

Over at his blog, DeVega responds .

What next my tribe of respectable negro friends and allies? Should I lay low or join the battle? And what will the reactionary troglodytes of the New Right do next?

*Historical note: Barack Obama's campaign theme song was "Signed, Sealed, Delivered."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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