Herman Cain as Political Court Jester

In the New Republic, John McWhorter has an interesting challenge to those who believe that Herman Cain’s act is little more than minstrelsy. McWhorter writes:

The real problem is that many political and media elites have a much too narrow conception of what it means to be black. Indeed, one of the saddest things about modern black American culture is the sense that there are large aspects of it that are somehow not respectable.

The fact is Cain is a black person from the state of Georgia: Why shouldn’t he have a right to invoke vernacular Southern black culture, including a fondness for cornbread? Cain’s saying “shucky ducky” is no different—no more anti-black—than when President Obama says “goin” instead of “going.” It is Cain’s critics, with their deep-seated ambivalence about the value of black culture, who deserve to face the charge of self-hatred. Where Cain is proud to display his blackness—from its physical characteristics (he has openly said he finds the color of his own skin to be beautiful) to its more subtle and humble cultural components—his detractors would seem to wish he would not be so black where white people can see it.

McWhorter’s point, that there is more than one way to be Black, is a point that ought to be well taken. Black conservatism has a rich intellectual history, dating back at least as far as Booker T. Washington, and it is unfair to excise from the race, Blacks who hold conservative political positions. If Carlton Banks is Black, then so are Black Conservatives.

Victor Anderson, Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University, seems to agree with McWhorter’s assertion that there is no such thing as an epistemology of “authentic Black culture”. In his work, Beyond Ontological BlacknessAnderson finds the idea dangerous because it denies a racial identity to those who do not wholly ascribe to the characteristics assigned to authentically Black persons. Thus, if one does not conform to recognizably Black behavior or mores, one does not fit in and cannot legitimately call oneself Black. This attitude has been used against Black conservatives to label them Uncle Toms, race traitors, and the like. Indeed, such an attitude has empowered White liberal voices to attack Cain as not being authentically Black in much the same way (see the Lawrence O’Donnell interview of Herman Cain).

Any criticism of Cain that is rooted in questioning his Blackness because of his political positions strikes me as out of bounds. If one wants to argue that Cain’s positions are potentially harmful to a majority of the Black population or that his persistent denial that systemic and structural racism is not a significant hinderance to Black social mobility, that is perfectly legitimate. However, claiming that Cain is not a real Black man is just as offensive as his determination that Obama is not one either.

McWhorter’s article actually helps me in figuring out my visceral reaction to Cain’s rising popularity as a candidate for the Republican nomination. He suggests that Cain is genuinely invoking Black southern vernacular and appealing to Black comic tropes in his public rhetoric during this campaign. Let’s take it as a given that the Cain we see in public is the real, genuine Cain, that he is not putting on a performance in blackface. What ought we to make of Herman Cain?

My issue with Cain is not his use of Black comedic tropes, it his use of those tropes as his primary means of articulating his positions. The salient argument is not that he is being Black in front of White people in a way that I find non-respectable. For me, the constant use of Black forms of humor and hyperbole reveal a pervasive lack of seriousness that undermines his credibility. Perhaps a few examples will illustrate my point.

Cain has accused the African-American community of being brainwashed into voting Democratic, dismissed a critical ally in the American war effort in Afghanistan by referring to the country as Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, called for an electrified border fence between the U.S. and Mexico that would kill people attempting to cross the border only to later claim that he was joking, frequently uses nonsensical phrases like “shucky-ducky“, joked that his secret service name should be “Cornbread”, and indulges in race-based humor without the benefit of a Black audience to laugh with him. By using race humor as his default form of messaging, Herman Cain makes it difficult for many Blacks to take him seriously as a candidate. Indeed, I believe his popularity in Republican circles stems primarily from his entertainment value. This makes Cain more of a court jester than a presidential candidate. His function seems to be to engage in outlandish, cartoonish, and controversial behavior that provokes liberal media responses and keeps the Republican primary battle interesting.

The lack of seriousness is reflected in Cain’s entire campaign. Cain hired a campaign manager guilty of prior campaign finance violations and shenanigans, which makes the latest real scandal on Cain’s campaign financing understandable. Cain offers the ridiculous idea that it is okay for him to learn foreign policy on the job (this just three years after Obama fought off inferences that he was too green handle 3am national security emergencies). He seems to be more interested in selling books on his book tour than actually campaigning to convince people to support him for president. And he would rather accuse the media of racism for digging up his past indiscretions than answer honestly about the charges of sexual harassment against him.

If Cain wants to be a stand up comedian or a political entertainer commentator, then by all means he is free to rely purely on humor and exaggeration to get his ideas across in public. But a serious candidate must move beyond jokes and entertainment to the hard task of policy and nuance. Maybe Cain just isn’t up to the task. There is a reason no one ever asked the court jester to rule the nation.


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