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."

Said Hewitt: "So you worked in some of America's most successful corporations. How was racism in those corporations? Or does talent win out in America?"

Cain's answer:

Well, you know, obviously racism is still there. I started my business career... just a few years after the Civil Rights Act... And so I went into corporate America to climb the corporate ladder before it was cool to have a black guy as a vice president... And you know how I did it, Hugh? I never looked back at race. If someone in the organization had a problem with my color, rather than looking at my performance, I simply allowed it to be their problem and not mine. Yes, I had to deal with it, but I never had a situation that I could not deal with. As a result, I was more focused on my performance. And what I learned is that if your performance exceeds those that you are competing against, and exceeds the performance of the people around you, people stop looking at the color of your skin, and they start looking at the content of your character, and they start looking at the content of your ideas.

Hewitt: "Did you run into any racists at any of those companies?"

Cain: "Yes, I did."

Hewitt: "How did you deal with them?"

Cain: "I was never in a situation where I had to deal with them directly or head to head. They may have been in the same organization, but they were not like my supervisor or immediate boss, or anything like that, so I just basically allowed them to have a problem with me. I didn't have a problem with them."

Hewitt: "Is racism pretty much gone in America, in your opinion, Herman Cain?"

Cain: "Racism is not gone in America, unfortunately. It's better than it was in the 60s, but it could be a whole lot better. And here's why it could be a whole lot better. Quite frankly, the liberals play the race card, because they have very little else to play when they want to try and attack conservatives, or attack somebody like me who considers themselves, I consider myself an American black conservative. Logic and facts don't support the liberals' point of view. So they can only use the tactic of name-calling, and as a result, they selectively play it, which stirs this whole race card thing, and creates racial tensions that really don't need to be there."

In that answer, the contrast presents itself: for the boy in segregated Atlanta, the student at the all black college, and the young black man trying to climb the corporate ladder "before it was cool to have a black vice-president," racial prejudice was something to be dealt with when necessary, but never something to get personally aggrieved about or to focus on. In GOP primary candidate mode, however, race is treated as a problem mostly attributable to ideological adversaries; and their alleged race-baiting is made into a focus for direct counterattacks.

"I left that Democrat plantation a long time ago and I ain't going back," Cain says during a speech that his campaign highlighted in a promotional video. "To all those people who say the Tea Party is a racist organization," he said on another, "eat your words." The implication: he's a black Tea Partier; the movement counts other minorities in its midst too; thus it cannot be racist. (I happen to agree that it isn't fundamentally racist, but for different reasons.) On another occasion, Cain said this: "Anecdotally, I happen to believe that at least a third of blacks who vote are conservative. But the left has intimidation tactics that cause some people who may not be as outspoken as I am to stay silent."

A frequent refrain in his speeches: "They call me racist too, because I disagree with a president who happens to be black. You will get called racist simply because you happen to disagree with a president who happens to be black. You are not racists! You are patriots because you are willing to stand up for what you believe in!"

He also talks as though racial absolution is granted to any movement that supports his candidacy: "The only tactic liberals have is to try to intimidate people into thinking that the Tea Party is racist. The Tea Party is not a racist movement, period! If it were, why would the straw polls keep showing that the black guy is winning? That's a rhetorical question. Let me state it: The black guy keeps winning."

The subtext is always something he stated explicitly here: "Right now, every time someone criticizes Barack Obama, they try to play the race card, the White House, all his supporters, they try to play the race card," Cain said, preceded immediately by, "This isn't why I'm running, but my candidacy would take race off the table."

Truth be told, I don't entirely blame the man for what he's doing. Perhaps every black candidate is forced to address race head-on during political campaigns. (That's certainly the impression one gets from the fact that talk radio hosts like Hewitt spend the bulk of their interviews prompting Cain to challenge the racial narrative of the left.)

It's a subject that President Obama had to navigate. He dealt with America's racial obsession by speaking about his unique biography, and what it said about the country. But I am less attracted to Cain's message of grievance. It's absurd to pretend that racism in America has one ideology, or that liberals are the only ones playing the race card. And I am particularly put off by Cain's tendentious insistence that there can be no racism in any movement or individual that supports a black man's candidacy. But I'll never have to run in a GOP primary as a black man, or excel my whole life in a system stacked against me only to have some other blacks and liberals regard me as a sellout or a minstrel or an Uncle Tom due to my ideological beliefs.

That must be galling.

That's why I am inclined to give Cain something of a pass on these issues, in much the same way that I could never quite hold it against Barack Obama that he attended Jeremiah Wright's church. In both cases, it's difficult to believe that the most offensive sentiments some would infer from their actions reflect the hearts of the candidates. Of course, Obama should have known better, and so should Cain when he plays dumb about racially questionable behavior on his own side. Take his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, who presses Cain for an example of White House supporters playing the race card whenever Obama is criticized. Cain finally cites the small controversy that erupted when Newt Gingrich called Obama a "food stamp" president.

Here's the ensuing exchange, with Goldberg playing narrator:

"For David Gregory to sit there and say, 'Speaker Gingrich, was that a coded racist statement?' just shows you how deep they dig to turn this into race. What the hell was he talking about?"

I suggested to him that Gingrich's turn of phrase was a quality example of a racial dog whistle, though it was not as elegantly rendered as Ronald Reagan's infamous reference to a "strapping young buck" who used his food stamps to buy a "T- bone steak." (Gingrich, in the midst of a strange and dreadful campaign, has been running something of a dog-whistle seminar, stating that President Obama is trying to "get the whole country to resemble Detroit," and arguing to those same Georgia Republicans that next year's election will be the most important since that of 1860.)

Cain wasn't buying it: "As a black man, I didn't see race in that statement whatsoever."

All things considered, I don't care whether Cain is blind to why some people find that statement racially objectionable, or just playing dumb, knowing that the last thing a black Republican can do is call a fellow conservative racist. Why worry about such things? Among the Republican candidates, I have no doubt that he's the nominee who'd be most attuned to how race works in America.

His rhetoric is nevertheless telling. Racism isn't just a problem in America, he says, it's still a problem because of liberals; he didn't just leave the Democratic party, he left its "plantation;" he didn't just fail to see the racial implications of the food stamp comment, he failed to see it "as a black man."

Cain found success in America downplaying the importance of race. He gets rightly offended by the idea that all black people should think about politics in the same way. But he "plays the race card" all the time as a politician. More specifically, he uses his blackness to alleviate the racial anxieties of Republican voters, to score rhetorical points, to summon argumentative cred, even to imply that his opinion of certain racially fraught matters deserves greater weight because he is black, and can therefore offer the allegedly dispositive "black opinion" on racism or dog whistles.

Again, it's easy to forgive all of this.

It isn't as if running in a race blind world is an option for him.

As has been true his whole life, he's trying to advance in a system where the odds are stacked against him. It's too much to expect him to take anything other than a utilitarian view of the way that race, politics, and career advancement intersect in America. The conclusion I draw from the approach he's taken over the years is only this: if Cain's competitive instincts are to be trusted, getting ahead in corporate America requires downplaying racial grievances, whereas getting ahead in a GOP primary incentivizes all who are able to play them up at every opportunity.

Image credit: Reuters