By DeWayne Wickham
Energized by his surprise victory in Florida’s GOP straw poll, Herman Cain quickly sought to strengthen his standing among conservatives by giving them something that no other GOP presidential candidate can — absolution on the haunting issue of race.
“Many African Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view,” Cain, the only black in the field of announced Republican presidential contenders, said during an interview on CNN.
By pinning the overwhelming support blacks give Democratic presidential candidates on some Svengali-like, forced manipulation of their minds, Cain relieves GOP conservatives of any responsibility for chasing the majority of black voters out of the party of Abraham Lincoln.
By blaming black mindlessness for this flight, Cain ignores the race-baiting “Southern strategy” that virtually every Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon has used as a wedge issue to win the backing of Southern whites.
By suggesting that most black voters are herded to the polls like sheep by liberal Democrats, he leaves no need for the GOP to explain why blacks, who have a strong conservative streak, have largely abandoned the Republican Party.
Instead of telling the GOP voters he courts some hard truths, Cain courts them with doublespeak about black voters, who he later told CNN “more and more” are thinking for themselves and would likely vote for him in large numbers if he ends up in a general election showdown with Barack Obama.
The truth is, most blacks are conservative on issues of religion, education and crime. But for the vast majority of blacks, race is a survival issue that trumps all others. To most blacks, the GOP push for more “states’ rights” (a battle cry of the Confederacy) and a smaller federal government (which many blacks believe will threaten their hard-won civil rights protections) is an assault on them.
I suspect Cain knows this. But as with just about every Republican black elected official, he’s more interested in courting white voters than black voters. The last time a black Republican won election to a national office from a majority black district was in 1932, when voters in Illinois’ first congressional district re-elected Oscar De Priest to his third — and final — term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Most black Republicans elected to Congress since then have done so with the embrace of the conservative GOP voters they had to court. And most of those black Republican officeseekers, in one way or another, sought to immunize their party against the charge of racism — often in the face of compelling evidence of its intolerant treatment of blacks.
Cain is the latest in this long line of black Republicans. What distinguishes him from the rest are the impressive showing he made in an early voter test of the GOP’s presidential candidates and his claim that a sizable number of blacks would abandon the Democratic Party and vote for him in 2012. The first may say more about the weakness of GOP opponents than Cain’s strength. The other would be laughable if it were not beneath the dignity of satire.
Republicans who want their party to be more a part of this nation’s future than its past would do well to reject the absolution Cain offers them — and the self-denial that has plagued their relations with this nation’s black electorate.