Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega
Chicago, Illinois, USA
September 11
A (Sometimes) Respectable Negro
Editor and Founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes He has been a guest on the BBC, Ring of Fire Radio, Ed Schultz, Joshua Holland's Alternet Radio Hour, the Burt Cohen show, and Our Common Ground. His essays have been featured by Salon, Alternet, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Kos. The NY Times, the Daily Beast, the Utne Reader, Washington Monthly, Slate, and the Week (among others) have featured his expert commentary and analysis on race, politics, and popular culture.

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Editor’s Pick
MARCH 21, 2011 3:10PM

Herman Cain: Lover of Jim Crow, Apologist for White Racism

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While stumping on the fundraising circuit in Nashua, New Hampshire last weekend, prospective Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain gave a speech right out of the black conservative playbook.

Cain spun a tale of his own childhood that was part Leave it to Beaver mated with a healthy dose of The Andy Griffith Show. He colorized these nostalgia-laden versions of Americana and whiteness -- lies wrapped around a fiction -- by adding an anecdote from his own experience as a young man encountering the evil that was Jim Crow America. In Cain's telling, he was denied admission to the University of Georgia based on his race,even though he ranked second in his high school class. Rather than show righteous anger and indignation at how his basic life chances were threatened by the (il)logic of white supremacy, Herman Cain "never lost faith in America" and oddly "found inspiration in the experience" as it reinforced the values his parents had instilled in him.

Cain's story jogged loose a memory from my own childhood. My grandmother, like Herman Cain's family, lived in the South during the height of Jim Crow segregation. As a black American of a different generation, I would often ask her about those years, and about our family's experiences from slavery to freedom. She was our family griot, passing down long-told vignettes of centuries past, as well as stories from the recent past about the civil rights movement (she was especially proud of how white men in our small town called my great uncle "sir" instead of "uncle" or "boy").

One theme she consistently returned to was that black folks are like everyone else: during our three centuries in the country some of us were heroic, others cowardly, some good, and some bad. But there was always a sense of linked fate and communal obligation. As black folks struggling to survive in a white supremacist society there was really no other option if we were to triumph and make American democracy whole. However, my grandmother always reminded me that while most honored the community that nurtured them and fought for our collective well-being, there were others whose minds had been poisoned by white racism. These sad souls were to be pitied, but also avoided.

In their roles as race pimps who deal from the bottom of the "race card" deck on behalf of the Republican party, Cain and many other popular black conservatives run from the history of communal struggle and obligation that is a mark of pride in the African-American community. Moreover, they recycle conservative fantasies of self-made men and women, the dime-novel Horatio Alger tale, and embrace the myth of meritocracy. The latter is doubly ironic for black conservatives given America's long history of economic, legal, social and political privileges that were -- and often still are -- the exclusive province of white people.

Just as Herman Cain did in his speech in New Hampshire, popular black conservatives perform their designated roles as mascots and apologists for white racism. They are "the good ones": black folks who do not complain or protest, who trust in white benevolence, and never rock the boat. Thus black conservatives fulfill a fantasy role for white conservatives who seek to minimize the role that centuries of discrimination, violent oppression and racism continue to play in contemporary American life.

For example, take this anecdote Cain told to Matt Lewis of the conservative Daily Caller Web site:

"We were at the bargain basement department store one day,” Cain told me recently, “and my mom was looking on the rack and we asked if we could go get some water. And mom specifically said, make sure you all drink out of the colored fountain. And then, typical young boys, we kind of went hmm, nobody’s looking." Cain continues, “My brother went first while I stayed on the lookout. Then he was on lookout while I sipped the white water."
I asked Cain what lesson he learned from this experience. “We looked at each other and said, the water tastes the same! What’s the big deal?"

Cain grabbed headlines in New Hampshire when he made a case for his presidential candidacy in racial terms. “There are some people who will say, ‘I’m not going to vote for another black guy because this one didn’t work out,’” Cain told his audience. “And my response is, well, what about those 43 white guys you put in there? How did they work out? Don’t condemn me because the first black one was bad.”

Cain's narrative, in which, like other conservatives, he is an island unto himself -- separate from social structures and institutions -- is exposed as a naked lie when his story is placed in context. Herman Cain's success rests on the shoulders of the many nameless people who struggled and marched so he could fully realize his freedom and citizenship. For example, Cain attended Purdue University at a time when student activists forced colleges and universities across the country to integrate. As the Tea Party GOP loves to point out, Cain enjoyed great success in corporate America because of his hard work and talent. But, he was also successful because of how black and brown folks (and their white allies), kicked down the doors of Wall Street and Main Street, as well as cracked the glass ceiling, so that people of color (and women) could enter and rise.

In response, Herman Cain and his brethren grin and shuffle for white conservatives by telling them that "black folks are on a Democratic plantation" or "liberals are slave-catchers of black people." When playing this role, black conservatives spit in the faces of the thousands (if not millions) of African Americans who struggled and died for the freedom and full citizenship of all people.

African Americans' disregard for black conservatives is not a rejection of the merits of principled, ideological diversity. Rather, it is a response to how many black conservatives denigrate the common sense and political sophistication of the African-American community in order to earn their bona fides with the Republican Party. A firm rejection of black conservatives is also a function of self-interest. Herman Cain is a frequent speaker at events hosted by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded group at the forefront of a successful effort in North Carolina's Wake County to end the desegregation of public schools. The Tea Party GOP is awash in the toxic fumes of white racial resentment, xenophobia and the neo-secessionist states' rights movement. These are efforts that do not serve the common good, and are especially noxious to the political health of black and brown folk.

Some have asked why I call black conservatives such as Herman Cain the "garbage pail kids" of American politics. It is not because they lack political vision. Nor is it a suggestion that black conservatives belong on the refuse pile of American history. I use this phrase because black conservatives have embraced a party that (especially given its current love of know-nothing politics) is hostile to a community to which they should have some nominal sense of attachment and commitment. With their ideology rejected by the African-American community, black conservatives are now quislings who seek solace in the arms of those who may hold people of color in low regard, but reward them for their novelty--and loyalty.

This critique of Herman Cain is not "just" about race or long-running political differences in the black community. No, this conversation is also about the reality that black conservatives are the spearhead and smokescreen for a range of policies that are hostile to the interests of the working- and middle-classes, and which support the dismantlement of the social safety net in this country.

Consider the following rogues' gallery and their relationship to the contemporary Tea Party GOP. Justice Clarence Thomas plays the role of an ethically embattled black golem who sleeps through hearings and only offers comment in support of the most draconian and right-wing positions. Juan Williams plays the role of a teeth-baring attack dog that slams NPR for "racism" and "elitism," thus legitimating the right's efforts to defund any media outlets that offer a voice contrary to Fox News. Michael Steele plays the "anti-Obama" -- a buffoon who promised to bring the "fried chicken" and "potato salad" in order to win the black vote. And Herman Cain plays the race minstrel, a projection of white fantasies and a magic salve that tells conservatives racism is gone, and any attacks against the Tea Party GOP that dare to suggest otherwise are dirty pool.

Ultimately, for any candidate running under the Tea Party brand, expressing reverence for the "Founding Fathers" and a cartoonish version of the U.S. Constitution is mandatory -- and, in this, Herman Cain, speaking in New Hampshire, did not disappoint. In a manner typical of "original intent" constitutional fetishists, Cain dodged any criticism which points out the obvious fact that the Founding Fathers were slave-holding hypocrites, and the Constitution itself was a pro-slavery document. But, then again, in Herman Cain's world, race-segregated drinking fountains did no harm; it's all about the water. In the very white world of the Tea Party, that reassurance is, no doubt, most welcome.

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loved this essay...struck by and agree that tea party make our history into a cartoon
I'm holding my comment for now; I'll just wait for Joseph Cole to show up and knock him down again
Herman Cain, gag me with a spoon.
It might be all about the water IF it was all water under the bridge; but alas, a vast reservoir of racism remains in America -- and the Teapartians are living proof of that charge.

Herman and his ilk are tokens of the high esteem with which Teapartians hold people of color. As far as I can see, the Republican Party on the whole is no better, and it has become the reincarnation of the American Independent Party. I suspect Cain would be comfortable running under that banner, too.
When dealing with a street corner, deal from the bottom of the deck three card Monte hustler like Hermain Cain, the smart player in the crowd will look for the card with the bent corner.
But he's playing to the crowd that thinks they were independent thinkers last time and believe their decisions were not racist. They just didn't believe in Obama's white half.
Bet on the card with the bent corner.
The choice is clear: go forward in color-blind reason or wallow in the rancid resentments of the past. You write rather well, by the way. Not often found in your neck of the political woods.
What a hypocrite you are. Somebody made good who happens to be black and you can't stand it. You can't stand it because he is not going to pander to the race baiters like Jackson and Sharpton.

To you the only good black person is some who is a slave to the government handout. If they are not then they are race traders. Go grab another malt liquor and keep the stereotype going that a black person can't make it on his own ability. Either that or go apply for a job in the city of Dayton. They will lower the test score for you because your dumb and you have to have special assistance to pass a test.
Very well written piece. I can see how an African American could be either a economic (anti-debt/ entitlements) or a social-issues (ie religious objection to abortion etc) or a foreign policy (ie very hawkish) conservative, but I do find it hard to understand an embrace of the Constitutional-originalist tea party wing of the Republican party. And the water fountain story is such a great example of hollow reassurance to white voters.
Blah blah blah..the TEA Party is racist...blah blah blah...Herman Cain is a sellout turncoat white wannabe...blah blah blah. Can't you people come up with something ELSE? You just can't stand it when a black person stands up for respectable principles and doesn't tow the Democrat party line, can you? Even though it was the DEMOCRATS who voted AGAINST civil rights and FOR lynching over and over!! Herman Cain has his own mind, his own thoughts, his own ideas. It's YOU that wish to keep him on the plantation. As you do all other blacks. You can't understand or relate to this because you cannot stand to see a black man truly free! Nope. He's not still enslaved with the negro mentality and you just can't stand it, can you. So you have to accuse, slander, belittle and berate him. Like another awesome black conservative Larry Elder said - the race card has expired. Find another angle because this one doesn't work. At least not on smart people.
Herman Cain has spent 40 years working his butt off to get where he is, and neither needs the money, nor feels he has the time to waste screwing around. He says he owes it to his progeny to leave them the best future he can. I feel the same, as do most Americans. Those of us who share this view are busy working hard to accomplish this. This country got to its zenith by applying the very same values Herman Cain espouses. Our problems started , frankly, with my parents and my generations, when they were soft on us, and we discovered "spare time" and created the welfare state. Not having a hot war for quite a while softened us up as well. Now it's time to suck it up and get back to business, using the old, but proven formula that made US great in the first place. Basically, the Golden Rules: 1.) do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 2.) He who has the gold makes the rules. (This one reminds us of the food chain, which while maybe not politically correct, is still in effect.) These 2 have brought us far, and will continue to work if we will work as well. Please join us or get the heck out of our way...

Are you for real? It is hard for me to comprehend that your world is so divided between Black and White. Every issue is black and white for you with no room for rational intellignet reasoning. There is only One racist in the room if it was occupied by you and Herman Cain. Guess who. I've listened to Herman Cain for years on talk radio and have always liked his common sense way of dealing with issues. I never once thought "ha.... we got us a negro guy that is so stupid he supports us white supremacists." I support him on his views not his color. I am color blind to everyone. Perhaps you should try it and let go of this pent up white anger you have. America is open to anyone to be successful. Do you forget who is President? How is it us White Supremacists are holding back the black man? I've never in my life felt my Whiteness gives me any power over any black people. I've worked along side many black people (men and women) and rarely saw any racism from whites. More often, blacks (probably your cousin) sometimes complain they were singled out since they are black. Well... I have been mistreated many times by employers and people and understand life isn’t fair. Why can’t a black person just accept that is life and not because they are black. I would suggest you look at life and the world around you with colorblind glasses and perhaps you can get rid of the senseless rage you have. Jesus teaches forgiveness. Perhaps you should try it, forgive those who mistreated your ancestors and move on. A weight will be lifted off you.
Great piece! I can't believe I have only now discovered you. I see you have made some big waves on The Web. LOL! Thanks for telling it like it is and not mincing words. It may bruise the feelings of some white people, but they must trust that they are better off in the long run knowing how we blacks REALLY feel. I am looking forward to your future posts. If Herman Cain has the temerity to cynically stab us in the back like this, he has placed himself in our rhetorical gun sights. I am posting links to this article all over Twitter & will give him everything he deserves on there. Thanks for what you are doing here. It is greatly needed.
A fair and balanced blend of the personal and political. Hard work, check; entrepreneurial spirit, check; conservative beliefs, check –– self-serving pretense that he succeeded solely because of his yeoman work ethic that, um, whites were always hoping, uh, that black folk would acquire, despite the cradle-to-grave, can't-do-to-can't-do social limitations imposed for a hundred years after the Proclamation? double check.

You nail this. Conservatives (like many of the disguised commenters) who see this in the stark terms of "hating" on self-determination either don't know history or simply hate nuance and complexity as a "liberal" concept. Yours is a reality-based post.

Like you I applaud Herman's business success and lament that he pretends it happened in a vacuum, free of history and struggle.
I asked Cain what lesson he learned from this experience. “We looked at each other and said, the water tastes the same! What’s the big deal?"

Wow, just wow. What's the big deal indeed. (Shaking head in disbelief.)

Here's hoping Cain (isn't that the name of the biblical character who committed the first fratricide?) disappears soon, back to running some other greasy business.
Haha, I see (all right, I'm late) attracted some of those commenters who have no history, but just signed up to attack you. Well, to be fair, plaintruth is also one of those, but of the positive persuasion.

And you won (faint) praise from Gordon! He thinks you're articulate! He might even think that you're clean!
Full agreement here from the "Liberal" perspective.

Cain supports the TeaPublicans to promote his own goals of personal wealth and power. PERIOD.

Color has very little to do with it, unless he uses that aspect in support of the GOP. Think that meets the definition of "Sellout".
Nice work. It's great to see "race" issues and related personages covered by an "African-American." At some point the psychology of people like Clarence Thomas and Herman Cain will be explored in depth. They remind me of the Adolph Caesar character in "A Soldier's Story," who expressed his self-hatred by abusing lower-ranking "black" troops, getting himself murdered in the process.

"African-Americans" know all-too-well of such people, those who identify with the oppressor as a way of pretending they are "above" their perceived "race." I happen to not believe that "race" exists, but most people do, so it is safe to say that we have an effectively "racist" system. Within that system, a few Herman Cain types are inevitable. That he is a cartoon character puts the phenomenon in sharp relief. The next one might not be so obvious.