Herman Cain's Identity Politics

There's a beautiful defense of Lawrence O'Donnell's interview of Herman Cain over at Andrew Sullivan's place. The writer is African-American and basically argues that if Herman Cain wants to go around flashing his blacker than thou credentials ("elect a real black man") insinuating that the president isn't actually black, and then asserting that most black people are brainwashed, all to the glee of white populists, he should be prepared to have his papers questioned:


You may argue that Herman Cain had a right not to participate in the Civil Rights Movement, and that may be true. But here's the problem: he's holding himself up as an example of, if not the very pinnacle of, the black community. (Just ask him, he'll be glad to tell you). He has gone so far as to suggest that Black People who do not support him (not give him a fair hearing, mind you, but out-and-out support him) have been brainwashed by the Democratic Party. 

May I suggest that my Father and Mother were not brainwashed? May I suggest that they saw with their own eyes who was supporting Civil Rights and who wasn't; and their allegiance forevermore was aligned with the Democratic party. And for the record, yes, there were Southern Democrats who voted against the 1965 Civil Rights Act. They long ago switched parties and joined Herman Cain's party, the Republicans. I'm sure even Mr. Cain remembers Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, and saying he was delivering the South to the Republicans for the next 40 years. He was wrong. Try 60-70. 

 The horrific part of the interview which apparently did not catch your eye, was Lawrence's first asking Mr. Cain if he wanted to back off that "brainwashing" statement. Mr. Cain did not. With him questioning my intelligence as a African-American, I had a right to know where he stood in relation to the community he was questioning I had a right to know what kind of African-American he was, and yes that is something I can judge given the questions Lawrence O'Donnell asked rather haltingly. I had a right to know what he had given to the cause. Because if he had stood with my parents, if he had marched with my parents, then African-Americans as a whole would have shrugged when he called us "brainwashed". At least, we would have decided, he earned the right.

I think it's perfectly fine that Cain didn't participate in the Civil Rights movement. Condoleeza Rice notes that her parents actively dissuaded participation, in favor of a quieter revolution. Most black people did not march in the 60s. But most black people don't around publicly pitching themselves as the essence of the black experience, either. 


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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