If you prick me do I not bleed?
After reading The Christian Science Monitor's essay "Why Herman Cain Could be the GOP's Perfect Obama Rival," I am in violation of one of my own pedagogical rules as something about Professor Charlton McIlwain's analysis has rubbed me the wrong way--and well, for lack of a better phrase, it feels personal.
I often tell my students that the "I" in our discussions of politics is a beginning and not an end for analysis. Normative priors are important to the degree to which they are transparent and acknowledged. Feelings matter, emotions matter, but they must not cloud reasoned analysis. Especially in discussions of race and identity politics--where the personal can be quite political--this is not always easy.
McIlwain's analysis of Herman Cain's branding in his campaign ads is spot on. And while the focus on the strategies used by Cain to distinguish and market himself as a black conservative to white conservative audiences may be correct, the conclusion (that those strategies will translate into electoral success) is a shaky one at best. By comic book analogy, if President Obama is Superman, Herman Cain is his bizzarro universe flying backwards doppelganger. Ultimately, the latter has not a snowball's chance in hell of winning the Republican nomination in 2012.
Nevertheless, there is a sharp moment in "Why Herman Cain Could be the GOP's Perfect Obama Rival" that gave me pause. Consider the following passage:
Label me a pedant, but as a point of historical clarification, those times were never simple.
But Cain counters the black liberal stigma in one fell swoop. He stamped “conservative” across his political ads, making the label his badge of honor. You see, in today’s racial parlance, conservative is not only antithetical to being liberal; it is antithetical to being black, which is what you must be if you’re a black man looking for Republican votes.
Cain further showcases his conservative persona. In one such ad he recalls one of his greatest life lessons. “My daddy always said, ’dem that’s comin’, get on the wagon, dems that ain't, get out the way.” Cain’s quaint recollection taps into conservative nostalgia. They remind viewers that the good ‘ol days were not only simpler. They were days when folks like Cain’s daddy still spoke the broken English of their slave forebears, and tended the mules pulling those wagons.
McIlwain offers a half-digested thought where follow through is oh so critical. Most important, a failure to bring the argument full circle and to close its loop leads to an avoidance of some hard questions such as the following:
1. Why do Conservatives find said images comforting? Why the stereotypical image of worn over, former slaves, who are simple folksy types ready to receive the benevolence of the White Man's Burden, and not of a free people with agency who fought every step of the way to liberate themselves in the face of horrific and oppressive white supremacy?
2. What precisely about the idea of black folks a few years removed from slavery and perpetual status as human property resonates with the White Conservative Soul?
3. Is this a Gone with the Wind moment, where some silly, empty nostalgia of happy darkies on the old plantation still looms large over the American psyche? What types of political work does that do for Herman Cain, for the Tea Party GOP, for Conservatives?
4.Why do folks like Herman Cain (i.e. his obsession with "being off the plantation" or a "runaway slave") and others feel so free to abuse the history of black Americans and the hellish reality that was chattel slavery? No other group, with perhaps the exception of Native Americans, has their history so easily played with, where there are few, if any, consequences for such gross misrepresentations of fact?
There is angst afoot here. In sum, "Why Herman Cain Could be the GOP's Perfect Obama Rival," feels like a racial microaggression, where it is not the intent, or even the soundness of The Christian Science Monitor's claims, but the context and implication of said work that signals an uncomfortable and unpleasant truth.
Help a brother out if you could. Am I on to something here?