How Herman Cain Succeeds in Spite of Racism

In corporate America, he downplayed racial grievances. As a Republican presidential primary candidate, he has an incentive to play them up.

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In the GOP primary, the award for most impressive biography goes to former CEO Herman Cain. Born in 1945 and raised in Atlanta, his father held three jobs, his mothered earned extra money doing domestic work, and until the eighth grade, he slept in the kitchen on a roll-away bed that he shared with his brother. "The rules of the house were simple and direct," he once said. "Don't get into trouble. Don't talk back to your mother. Go to church. Study hard and finish school."

Those aren't the words of a presidential candidate. The quote dates back to the 1990s, when Cain was honored by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, a non-profit dedicated to the proposition that hard work, honesty, and determination can conquer all obstacles. "An able student, Cain graduated high school and was salutatorian of his class," says the statement that accompanies his induction into the organization's Class of 1996. "He applied to and was accepted at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He worked after school and during the summer to pay his tuition." Earning a degree in math, he got a job at the Navy Department, realized government work wouldn't fulfill his ambitions, sought and earned a masters degree in computer science at Purdue, and began his business career. It succeeded wildly.

Depending on your point of view, something is either conspicuously missing or refreshingly absent from that story: Herman Cain is black. In gauging his rise, that matters. It helps us better understand significant obstacles that he faced, whether in the Jim Crow South of his youth, as a student at an all black college during the Civil Rights Movement, or during his trailblazing rise through mostly white corporate hierarchies.

A separate if tangentially related question is whether Cain's blackness should matter -- it clearly does matter -- as he pursues the GOP nomination and the presidency. What I find most interesting about that subject is the gulf separating Cain's approach toward racial matters as a private citizen, and his treatment of the subject as politician running an outspoken campaign to win over Republican voters.

His youthful attitude toward race comes across in a story he tells about a long ago trip to a department store. He and his brother asked permission to go get a drink of water. "Mom specifically said, 'Now y'all make sure you drink out of the colored fountain,'" he recounts. "Being typical young boys, we got over there and looked at those two water fountains, and we kinda looked around, and went, 'Hmmmm. Nobody's looking.' So my brother went first while I stayed on the lookout. Then he was on the lookout while I sipped the white water. And then we both sipped the colored water. We looked at each other: 'The water tastes the same. What's the big deal?' We were never taught discrimination. We had to live in a segregated society. But we hadn't fully grasped the significance of those public differences."

It's a charming story, at once capturing the abhorrent segregation that ruled in that era, the absurdity at its core, and a refusal to excuse it or succumb to feeling victimized, even when the latter reaction would've been justified. There's also the implicit idea that a good upbringing and being inculcated with sound values can trump even the worst sorts of influences from the outside world.

As Cain grew older, he took a similar approach to other racially fraught situations, as he noted this week during a radio interview. "How did you miss the 60s?" host Hugh Hewitt asked. "You're right there, and you're not a hippie. You're not a drug using, anti-war demonstrating... you're working for the Navy, in fact."

"My focus was not on being a hippie in the 60s," Cain replied. "I was focused on making me some money, starting my career, and letting all those others that wanted to be hippies, that they could do that. So I didn't get caught up in that."

Said Hewitt, "How did you miss the Black Power movement, and the Panthers, and all that stuff?"

"We didn't really miss the Black Power movement. We just didn't get overly caught up in the Black Power movement, because Dr. Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College, he said that's all well and good, but you've got to make sure that you keep things in their proper perspective," Cain said. "So I credit Dr. Mays for inspiring all of the young men of Morehouse. I was a student there when he was president. Sure, he taught, the Black Power movement is all well and good, but don't get caught up in that, because that's not going to be your key to success. Black Power, black identity is a great thing. But he also reminded us that your ability, educationally, was going to be a big key to what you were going to be able to do in this country."

Said Hewitt, "How did the Civil Rights movement impact your life?"

"I lived an example of how this country can change if it wants to," Cain said. "We had a great leader. This nation had a great leader in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He didn't just lead black people. He led this entire nation and the world to change hearts, so that we could change our minds, and then change our laws."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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