Monday, October 10, 2011
The Pain of Herman Cain: How a Chance Encounter at an African American Barbershop Helped to Create a Black Conservative
All aboard the Cain train!
Brother Cornel West told CNN that Herman Cain is smoking the metaphorical crack pipe. Boyce Watkins used Herman Cain as an object lesson in black on black racism. Professor Eddie Glaude, polite as ever, said that Herman Cain practices "political chicanery." Elder god Reverend Lowery called Herman Cain a butt-licking coprophagist...but he said it using nicer words. And Harry Belafonte just eviscerates Herman Cain and his Tea Party GOP handlers.
What fun. The irony of course is that the more Herb Cain is criticized by African Americans for his role as a professional racism apologist the more popular he will become with his White Conservative reactionary audience and sponsors. Call it the black conservative patted on the head by their white masters corollary to Newton's third law of motion.
I have been reflecting on Herman Cain's story about being denied service at a black barbershop because they could not use the clippers on an African American and still keep their white clientele. That moment is very telling both for what it reveals about Herman Cain's psyche and also for the larger macro-level phenomena it signals to.
Historically, the socio-political interests of black Americans have been racialized. Group interests have served as a powerful variable in the political calculations of African Americans because the reality of white supremacy has been one where we have not had the luxury of buying into a narrative of wide eyed, pie in the sky Whiteness enabled individualism.
We got our butts kicked as a group; our individual merits mattered little to the slaver, Jim and Jim Crow, or the "racism without racists" post-Civil Rights milieu. For example, members of the black middle and upper classes use the social and economic status of their less well-off relatives, friends, and community members as variables which influence their political decision making. Why? The hold of black strivers on the ladder of success is tenuous. In addition, the stale, flat narrative of the black poor and black underclass that dominates the popular imagination is instead one that is real to us: said folks are our brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, and other kin, either fictive or blood related.
Black Conservatives like Herman Cain fit perfectly into this story because one of the variables that over-determines a sense of linked fate with other African Americans (and by implication their political orientation) is how deeply embedded they are in the black community. Black conservatives tend to have fewer attachments to African American social institutions (political associations, neighborhood groups, fraternal organizations, and of course the obligatory barbershops and hair salons) . Consequently, black conservatives are less likely to have a sense of group affinity for and with other African Americans.
In all, the black utility heuristic is not in play for the Cains, Thomases, and Steeles of the world.
The image Herman Cain paints of his barbershop encounter, assuming it is in fact true (and I have serious doubts as he is playing a blackface version of the Horatio Alger myth) is doubly sad because in that one moment he was ostracized from one of the few black spaces which remain in America, and said locale in the black public sphere was still governed by the white gaze and its power to marginalize and do harm to people of color.
Perhaps it is my love of theoretical physics and chaos theory. Or maybe I have watched the Star Trek TNG episode "Tapestry" too many times, but I wonder how that one moment impacted Herman Cain's future political attitudes and life trajectory? Would Herman Cain have become a different person, an upright and proud Morehouse man, instead of a professional racism denier and enabler of white supremacy, if one of the brothers had given his woolly head a proper cut?
I present two possibilities:
1. Herman Cain, a young man raised by a family who did not believe in the merits of the Civil Rights Movement, and which saw Dr. King and others as "outside agitators," had years ago decided to smile and grin in order to get along with white folks. The haircut moment had nothing to do with the man he would become in the future. Cain already believed that it was much better to lay down with the lions as a pet sheep than to dare resist and perhaps suffer harm (or risk being a difficult to digest meal).
2. Herman Cain, embarrassed by seeing black men humiliated by whites in their own barbershop, became disgusted with black people as a whole--and thus convinced of his own "uniqueness" as an "exceptional negro"--decided that he had shared few traits with the "common black." Instead of being angry at the white men who humiliated the black barbers, Herman Cain lashed out at African Americans everywhere. They are a pitiable people in Herman Cain's eyes, so why have anything to do with them?
I do have a thought that I need your help reasoning through: Why didn't Herman Cain, a product of Jim Crow and a man who should be familiar with the depth of the informal black codes and rules of racial comportment in the South, just find another black barbershop where he would be welcome?
Moreover, Cain's choice to buy his own clippers is also telling. There is an argument that black conservatism is actually none too far ideologically from black nationalism. In another person, at another time, with a different history, could Herman Cain's barbershop pain have resulted in him becoming a Black Nationalist as opposed to a race traitor who serves as a human parrot for racially resentful and bigoted White Conservatives?
The possibilities boggle the mind...