Black Swan

The surprise rise of Herman Cain has the Tea Party asking: “Who’s racist now?”

Herman Cain speaks to a crowd at Ohio Christian University on Oct. 13.
Herman Cain speaks to a crowd at Ohio Christian University on Oct. 13

Photograph by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images.

The current frontrunner for the 2012 Republican Party nomination is a 65-year-old black man. Sure, we could talk about how this is a fluke, or how “Herman Cain” is just how voters tell pollsters “I don’t know what to do yet,” or how this is all part of Mitt Romney’s Rube Goldberg plan to become president. All of that may be true, later. For now, the GOP’s current frontrunner is a 65-year-old black man.

Seriously. In three of the last five national polls, Cain has tied or surpassed Romney. In Public Policy Polling’s survey, which dug a little deeper, voters were asked to narrow the field to just Romney and Cain. Hypothetically, Cain led Romney by 12 points. Republican voters really, really like Herman Cain. For the first time since the abortive Colin Powell draft of 1995, a black candidate has led a few polls for the GOP presidential nomination. And Cain, unlike Powell, is serious about this.

What does it mean? According to Michael Steele, the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, the answer is … not too much. Is it promising? Sure. But let’s not get carried away.

“I think Herman’s doing well on the power of his ideas, his vision,” says Steele. “I’d say to Republicans: ‘Look—he’s not a cosmetic fix who’s going to ameliorate that ugly stripe that black people see when they look at you. You’ve got that because over the last 40 years, you’ve done jack to empower them.’ People need to be careful, not to come at this with the attitude that it’s going to fix their image. It’s offensive to Herman. It’s offensive to me as an African-American.”

Still, even if this is one big distraction on the road to the Romney inaugural, Tea Party organizers are loving it. Cain became a national figure because he teleported around the country speaking at every anti-tax event that would have him. He was out there swinging and laughing when Tea Partiers were accused of racism. Now, Tea Partiers want him to be president. Who’s calling them racist now?

“This proves that the Tea Party doesn’t count color against candidates,” says Brendan Steinhauser, the coordinator of state campaigns at FreedomWorks. “So Rep. Andre Carson says the Tea Party wants to lynch black people. What does he have to say if Cain gets the nomination? It certainly disproves this idea that the movement is racist.”

Every time some annoying reporter or pundit or talking head or political scientist mused about the Tea Party and race—why did these people dislike President Obama so much?—the movement would point to a crop of black politicians, like Rep. Allen West, who were right in line with them. They were talking up Cain when editors were wasting space on Tim Pawlenty. Andrew Breitbart, the conservative-media entrepreneur, remembers what happened when he closed out an election-fraud-phobic “True the Vote” conference this year in Texas.

“I posited the Cain-West or West-Cain ‘All Black, All Tea Party’ ticket,” he says, “and there was a spontaneous standing ovation of epic proportion.”

You can’t overstate how much the “racism” stuff irritates the sorts of conservatives now backing Cain. They were hit with it throughout 2009. In 2010, after a Capitol Hill rally to stop the health care bill, Carson and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus accused them of using racist insults; people like Breitbart fought for weeks to get stories about this debunked and retracted. Now they can point to polls that show them backing Herman Cain. “They made these charges that the Tea Party was racist, or Astroturf, or gun nuts, or all the other pejoratives,” says Sal Russo of the Tea Party Express. “The charges were all bogus.”

But maybe the Tea Party shouldn’t be so cheery, says Christopher Parker. He’s an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington. In 2010, he was the lead investigator on an academic study of the Tea Party and race. The academics surveyed 117 “true believers” of the movement, alongside hundreds of “true skeptics,” people with mixed opinions, and people who didn’t know about the movement. Parker found that Tea Partiers held generally more negative views of blacks and Hispanics, measured in a number of ways.

One of Parker’s test statements was: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors.” Seventy percent of all white people in the study agreed; 88 percent of Tea Partiers agreed. Another statement: “If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” Fifty-six percent of all white people agreed, and 73 percent of Tea Partiers. These are the kind of sentiments that Cain has voiced as he’s been asked about race. “He has an inspiring story,” says Parker. It doesn’t change the study’s conclusions.

“Just because you have one person who can be an exception to your view doesn’t mean the view is blunted,” says Parker. “He can be seen as an exceptional negro who defies stereotypes. A group may have less charitable opinions about race, but there are always going to be a few token black folks who they like. Herman Cain just happens to be the token this time.”

This is the ivory tower version of a debate older than Booker T. Washington—a debate that won’t be over even if Cain surprises us. In 2007 and 2008, black news sites and politics blogs were all over the rise of Barack Obama. In 2011, the rise of Cain is treated like an oddity. “Don’t get fooled by that tap-dancing he’s doing for white Republicans,” writes Brentin Mock at Loop21, introducing a list of silly stories from Cain’s autobiography. “He is way blacker then he’s cared to admit on the campaign trail.” At Jack and Jill Politics, Anson Asaka calls the candidate “Uncle Herman Cain,” and says his lack of interest in civil rights issues disqualifies him as a credible leader. “He stayed in his place,” writes Asaka, “at the back of the bus.”

This is a sentiment that Steele understands pretty well.

“Anyone who sits up here and thinks, ‘Let’s put Herman Cain against Barack Obama and we’ll win,’ is so stupid that he should sit in his cellar and play around on the Internet or something,” says Steele. “Voters are more sophisticated than that. Come on, now: Do you think black folks got up the day after I was elected and said, ‘Oh my God, there’s a black Republican Party chairman! I’ve got to join the Republicans!’” Steele laughs at the idea. “They’re not saying ‘Herman Cain is on the rise, let’s take a second look at that party!’ People aren’t like that.”