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Herman Cain And The Race Card

Herman Cain heads to speaking engagement at an Alexandria, Va., hotel, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011.
Cliff Owen
Herman Cain heads to speaking engagement at an Alexandria, Va., hotel, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011.

Here we go again with the race-card business.

Questioning the motives of those seeking the truth about the sexual harassment allegations against him when he led the National Restaurant Association, Herman Cain said he suspects critics on the political left of attacking him for racial reasons.

Cain, during a Fox News appearance, responded to pundit Charles Krauthammer's question as to whether race, specifically his being a black conservative, was behind what the Republican presidential candidate has elsewhere called a witch hunt:

I believe the answer is yes, but we do not have any evidence to support it. But because I am unconventional candidate running an unconventional campaign and achieving some unexpected unconventional results in terms of my, the poll, we believe that, yes, there are some people who are Democrats, liberals, who do not want to see me win the nomination. And there could be some people on the right who don't want to see me because I'm not the, quote/unquote, establishment candidate. No evidence.

KRAUTHAMMER: But does race have any part of that? Establishment, maverick, yes. What about race?

CAIN: Relative to the left, I believe race is a bigger driving factor. I don't think it's a driving factor on the right. This is just based upon our speculation.

This is the same Cain who said with confidence Monday that none of the criticism of President Obama from the political right has anything to do with race (a view shared by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, apparently.)

Yet, Democrats who raise questions about Cain's version of the sexual-harassment story are doing so because he's black, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO said. In Cain world, apparently, only liberals can be guilty of racism.

Cain's super PAC went even further in a fundraising appeal. It apparently decided there was no need to reinvent the race card wheel when there was already a classic at hand, the one Justice Clarence Thomas deployed at his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

The Hill reports on the super PAC's fundraising appeal:

"They're at it again. The left is trying to destroy Herman Cain — just like they did to Clarence Thomas," the letter said, referring to the Supreme Court justice, who is also black. "They are engaging in a high-tech lynching by smearing his reputation and attacking his character."

Anne Coulter, the conservative provocateur, also used the hoary metaphor.

To anyone who has read deeply about lynchings, who has seen images of lynchings or who has heard the stories of James Cameron who survived one or the descendants of those who didn't, this is truly an offensive and trite use of the term.

As Eric Deggans, media writer for the St. Pete Times wrote:

Assessing whether a politician is guilty of a sex-based scandal is nothing close to this historical horror. And it is time for the defenders of Cain to stop using it...

However this all shakes out, however, I hope we can all agree that connecting the imagery of lynching to a political scandal is not the wisest choice of words. Perhaps we could find a better analogy that serves the situation without distracting from the situation or trivializing history.

Cain pre-figured the lynching talk in a May interview with the Washington Examiner political correspondent Byron York. Matter of fact, in that interview, Cain contradicted himself on the race issue.

He has said that the success of his candidacy isn't about race. He said that explicitly during his Monday appearance at the National Press Club.

But in May he said just the opposite, that there's a racial component to his candidacy's success. An excerpt from the Examiner piece based on York's interview:

A mostly unspoken but possibly consequential factor in Cain's appeal to conservative voters is his race. Cain is a black Republican — a pretty rare thing in itself — seeking to challenge the nation's first black president. His audiences are almost entirely white; at the fundraiser, out of about 150 people, I saw one black couple, not counting Cain, his longtime driver, Cain's wife, and his wife's best friend. When you ask Cain's white supporters why they like him, almost none mention race. But occasionally someone will say they would like to see Republicans have a black candidate of their own who could go toe-to-toe with Obama.

"Here's my theory," said Cain, leaning forward in his chair. "Let's talk about the current field of Republican candidates. They can't go after Obama as hard as I can because they're not black. I think that, either subconsciously or deliberately, they are being coached to not say it a certain way, that you're going to be labeled a racist and the liberal media is going to try to bring you down, because they still want to protect their precious Obama."

Cain believes his audiences are a different story. "The voters, they hear my message first, not 'He could take it to Obama,' because they are more concerned about stopping Obama than taking it to Obama," he explained. "This is what I'm hearing and this is what I'm feeling. And the race card is going to be short-lived if Herman Cain gets the nomination."

Until then, apparently, it's alive and well and he will use it.

York alluded to Justice Thomas' confirmation battle which seems prescient on the writer's part given that charges of sexual harassment were a factor there, too. Cain had a ready response:

"They're going to come after me more viciously than they would a white candidate," Cain responded. "You're right. Clarence Thomas. And so, to use Clarence Thomas as an example, I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through — for the good of this country." Cain smiled broadly. "I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching."

But not all conservatives are accepting Cain's use of the race card. Jennifer Rubin, who writes the Washington Post's Right Turn blog, criticized Cain for resorting to accusing his critics of racism.

This is reprehensible, the sort of racial inflammation that, when practiced by the left, infuriates conservatives. Who is he accusing of racism — the Politico reporters? The women who made the claims in the 1990s? The media for covering allegations that he admitted were true (e.g., his employer settled at least one sexual harassment claim)?

Cain and his defenders, like actors in a theatrical tragedy, are falling prey to the very evil they labored against: the propensity to assign political identity by race and to invoke race to shield one from personal responsibility. Cain is in trouble because he didn't handle a past claim that even a political novice would know would come to light.

And even though she agrees with Cain that Obama is criticized because he's president and not because he's a black president, Rice, the former Bush Administration official, like Rubin, advised Cain to put the race card back in the deck. On CBS' "The Early Show" Wednesday she said:

I don't care much for incendiary language. And I'm actually someone who doesn't believe in playing the race card on either side. I've seen it played, by the way, on the other side quite a lot too. And it's not good for the country."

The whole problem with the race card, which I'll define as the cynical use of racial grievance to try and gain the moral high ground, is that it minimizes the difficult and confusing realities of race in America.

There are legitimate discussions about race to be had just as there are still very real racial disparities and, believe it or not, cases of real discrimination. The advent of a black president hasn't changed that. We are not post-racial.

Thus, not every complaint about the real and on-going effects of discrimination is "playing the race card." And when actual instances of racism are called out, to accuse those who point out injustice of "playing the race card" is an added injustice.

Unfortunately, there's no agreed-on referee to determine when a racial complaint has legitimacy and when the race card is being played.

But when people in your own party accuse you of playing the race card, that's probably as good a place to start as any.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.