The Right’s Absurd Herman Cain Race Card

Is racism to blame for the sexual harassment claims against Herman Cain? Michelle Goldberg on the roots of leading conservatives’ cynical strategy. Plus, Patricia Murphy on Gloria Cain's public debut.

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It has been interesting, if also predictable, to watch conservatives reacting to the Herman Cain sexual harassment allegations discover the horrors of anti-black racism. After all, they’ve spent the past three years claiming that the real victims of racism in the United States are white.

“Have we ever had a president who was such a partisan hack, such a race-baiter?” Rush Limbaugh asked last year. Meanwhile, he’s been utterly dismissive of the notion that the Tea Party has shown racism against African-Americans, saying, “[T]he charge of racism is losing its heft…it’s been overdone and overblown.” Writing of allegations of racism on college campuses in her 2009 book Guilty: Liberal ‘Victims’ and Their Assault on America, Ann Coulter charged, “Rather than ‘institutional racism,’ what we’re witnessing is ‘institutional racial hoaxism’ committed by liberals.” Calling the GOP’s infamous Willie Horton ads “powerful,” Erick Erickson has urged Republican strategists to create a new generation of similar spots about the farcical New Black Panther party, writing, “The Democrats are giving a pass to radicals who advocate killing white kids in the name of racial justice and who try to block voters from the polls.”

Then, this week, everything changed. Suddenly, the right sees the “institutional racism” that Coulter disparaged everywhere. “Look at how quickly what is known as the mainstream media goes for the ugliest racial stereotypes they can to attack a black conservative,” Limbaugh said on Monday. “I Declare Politico’s Attack On Herman Cain Racist,” blared a headline on On Fox and Friends Tuesday morning, guest host Peter Johnson Jr. alluded to Clarence Thomas, saying, “[M]aybe this is a high-tech lynching that Politico engaged in.”

This is an absurd charge. Herman Cain is currently leading the Republican polls. If he wants to be treated as a serious candidate—something that’s not entirely clear, given his lack of a campaign staff in Iowa and New Hampshire—he’s going to be subjected to serious scrutiny. When a major presidential candidate has been accused of sexual harassment, and when his accusers have received financial settlements as a result of their complaints, that’s news. Indeed, that’s so obvious it seems absurd to have to write it. Just imagine, after all, how much decorousness we could expect from Fox if such a scandal were discovered in Obama’s past.

But it’s not really surprising that the right, usually so dismissive of prejudice against African-Americans, has been so quick to cry racism. The modern conservative movement emerged in large part in opposition to the civil rights revolution, which caused Dixiecrats to flee to the GOP en masse. Even the Christian right began with racial grievance; as the evangelical Columbia professor Randall Balmer showed in his 2006 book, Thy Kingdom Come, the religious right was born out of the backlash against the IRS’s 1975 decision to revoke Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status because of its prohibition on interracial dating. In his 1996 book Active Faith, Ralph Reed acknowledged that his movement was on the wrong side of the fight for civil rights, writing, “The white evangelical church carries a shameful legacy of racism and the historical baggage of indifference to the most central struggle for social justice in this century, a legacy that is only now being wiped clean by the sanctifying work of repentance and racial reconciliation.”

As Reed’s word suggest, many on the right badly wants to be rid of this stain on their history. It’s a sign of progress that almost everyone in American public life considers racism to be shameful. At the same time, most conservatives remain opposed to policies designed to remedy the effects of past discrimination, and the movement is largely uncomfortable with the multicultural transformation of the United States. They want to wrap themselves in the now-unquestioned moral legitimacy of the civil rights movement without actually backing the movement’s goals. Hence Glenn Beck’s rally at the Washington Mall on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream" speech, or the parade of white congressmen who lined up to proclaim that they were saving black babies by trying to defund Planned Parenthood earlier this year.

Part of Herman Cain’s appeal is that he absolves the right of racism without asking them to change. It’s worth remembering that some conservatives briefly turned on him when he suggested that Rick Perry showed a “lack of sensitivity” by leaving the name “Niggerhead” on a rock outside his ranch. In the Daily Caller, Matt Lewis called Cain’s words “a cheap shot, and, perhaps a signal that Cain is willing to play the race card against a fellow Republican when it benefits him.” The influential right-wing blogger Glenn Reynolds was similarly disapproving, writing that Cain’s “big appeal is that he’s not just another black race-card-playing politician.”

Since then, Cain has made sure not to say anything that would impute racism to conservatives, and he’s been forgiven. Now, with Cain in the lead, the right is reveling in racial self-congratulation. Ann Coulter put it most crudely on Tuesday, telling Sean Hannity, “Our blacks are so much better than their blacks.” Lots of conservatives believe that liberals have been unfairly shutting down the conversation about our socialist Kenyan president’s anti-American policies by crying “racism.” Cain gives them a chance to try and do the same thing, without changing anything else about their modus operandi. If he sticks around, this won’t be the last time they take advantage of it.