In case you didn’t know, white Republicans have become the definitive voice on what constitutes blackness.
“Black authenticity, as defined by Southern mannerisms and darker complexion, amplified by conservatism or traditionalism, earns liberal unease,” says conservative commentator Victor Davis Hanson, defending (possibly fading) GOP presidential front-runner Herman Cain, in his latest op-ed for the National Review.
In case you are unfamiliar with the Review, it bares noting that this magazine, founded by famed conservative writer William F. Buckley in 1955, used its pages to rail against Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
The real problem, according to Hanson, is that Cain is really black, while Barack and Michelle Obama are not. Hanson argues that Cain’s “authentic blackness” has made him a target of the liberal media and Democratic operatives.
There are few statements that leave me speechless, but this, along with Ann Coulter’s latest rant comparing African-Americans in the GOP versus those in the Democratic Party, in which she said “our blacks are better than their blacks,” has so stumped me that I have no choice but to lend voice to their ignorance.
Since when did we tolerate white Americans — liberal or conservative – defining what it means to be black? Have they been transplanted back to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention at which the three-fifths compromise between Southern and Northern states was agreed? This is either a storyline out of The Twilight Zone or some Monty Python-like farce. Either way, it is not the real world.
The complicated history of race in America has been a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight. It still is. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was not the post-racial moment many had hoped for. In fact, the past three years have been a journey backward to a time when racial divides led to civil unrest.
Beginning with the rise of the Tea Party movement and their race-baiting attacks against Obama, the GOP establishment has continued to use race as an effective wedge to gain political points and rally a base laden with insurrectionist tendencies. The result has been a Republican-led Congress skillful at obstruction, a reinvigorated neo-conservative movement and a well-oiled, conservative media attack machine, hell-bent on unseating the nation’s first African-American president.
As the 2012 election approaches, the Republican establishment is well aware they have to clean house — at least temporarily — in order to appear decent.
Their strategy? To rally behind a black candidate of their very own. Despite his lack of political experience or policy acumen, Herman Cain has ascended from the shadows — with help from the billionaire Koch Brothers of course — to become the unlikeliest of GOP presidential front runners.
This is a ridiculously transparent tactic and one that has proven ineffective in the past. Following Obama’s historic election, the Republican National Committee decided to make history of its own by appointing Michael Steele as its Chairman — a short-lived experiment that failed miserably.
But it seems today’s Republican Party wants to use Herman Cain as an emotional mirage to prove they’re not racist. In fact, Cain with his statements that racism no longer exists in America represents the kind of misguided values conservatives like to see in their minority constituency. It assuages their fear and absolves them of any feeling of racial bias or prejudice with the blessing of the proverbial “black friend.”
Except that the more we see of Cain and hear from Republicans who prefer his kind of blackness, it becomes all the more obvious that out-dated racial attitudes are still very much on the menu of the modern conservative milieu.
In light of the recent allegations of sexual harassment by Cain of four female employees during his tenure as CEO of the National Restaurant Association, Hanson wrote his spirited defense which underscored everything we already knew about how many conservatives see minorities in general, but blacks in particular.
Hanson writes, “Cain is nothing but authentic. His speech and manner are as genuine as Obama’s are forced and often phony. His everyman persona and appeal to the working classes scare the liberal elite, in much the same way that Sarah Palin’s did.”
Hanson betrays himself by admitting that the GOP is far more comfortable with an African-American who does not challenge them. The Palin comparison is equally telling, as she became famous for celebrating the banal: becoming the face of an inarticulate, ill-informed, yet surprisingly self-righteous conservative approach to politics.
“I can see Russia from my house” was the Saturday Night Live line that paraphrased her understanding of foreign policy, in the same way that Herman Cain’s admittance that he knew nothing about “Ubeki-beki-beki-stan”, has become his shining moment of ignorant bliss.
But there is something deeper and more sinister at play here which is bigger than Cain, and as dated and outmoded as the Jim Crow age, and the images of Sambo and Uncle Tom to which it gave birth.
Cain’s “old fashioned” image embodies what conservatives imagine blacks were in the “good old days”: deferential to whiteness and “aw shucksy” over racism. In Cain’s own autobiography he admits that while growing up in the South he never challenged authority. Instead, when told to go to the back of the bus, he went, and as such, “stayed out of trouble.”
What is telling about today’s white conservative idealizing his purported image of what they call blackness, is that it is rooted in both absolute ignorance and a now-defunct white superiority.
The reality is that whites never really knew the black people they encountered prior to desegregation. They knew nothing of their authentic lives or thoughts. Last spring the box office hit, The Help confronted some of these very issues by showing how the women who raised many white Southern children, were as much strangers as they were surrogates.
The desire of people like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh to impose old fashioned definitions of “blackness” on our generation speaks to an inherent disconnect between the past and present state of racial politics and racial identification.
Cain is only the most recent example of the so called “good Negro”. Clarence Thomas, Allen West, and even Colin Powell (before his 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama’s presidential bid) have all been hailed as ideal examples of what constitutes an acceptable African-American. But what Colin Powell’s trajectory demonstrates is what happens when those conservative blacks decide to break ranks.
Powell has been shunned by the Republican establishment and accused of only supporting Obama “because he is black”. It seems the GOP is nostalgic for a past in which blacks were subservient, docile and knew their place.
Hanson concludes, “Cain is authentically African-American…Obama, the son of an elite Kenyan and a white graduate student, came of age as a Hawaiian prep-schooler, whose civil-rights credentials are academic. Cain’s lack of experience and seemingly embarrassing ignorance about the right of return or nuclear China are amplified by his unaffected style.”
Herein lays the essence of the conservative view of appropriate blackness: there can be no “elite” black which white conservatives must respect. Somehow, President Obama has failed to know his place and therefore needs reminding.
Hanson’s argument is not just offensive on that score, but hypocritical as well. It conveys how Cain — like Sarah Palin — is allowed a different standard. Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich would never be given a pass for not knowing that China had a well-developed nuclear program. Their credibility would automatically be considered null. But for Cain this is just fine.
Why? Because it reflects the kind of ignorance conservatives seem to admire in black Republicans and their black, faux-candidates, who do as they’re told and enjoy the proverbial pat on the head, and promote a white agenda. If in the process they can destroy the character of any genuinely uppity-Negroes or report on those who are planning revolt, then all the better: they just might be rewarded with a few crumbs from the master’s table.