Obama-Cain: A National Ralph Ellison Moment

OK, maybe it’s time. No “maybe” about it, it is time we all sat down and had a frank and full discussion about race in America.

People want the President to address this head on, but he’s in a peculiar position in that, if he did, certain people from both extremes would accuse him of playing the race card. In short, he has to stay above all that because – well, because he’s the President.

William Jelani Cobb, writing in the Washington Post, makes some very relevant statements concerning our current President and the rising popularity of Herman Cain amongst the GOP’s prospective candidates:-

Cain’s poll numbers are improving, he finished first in a Florida straw poll, and he seems to be an early front-runner in a handful of states that will hold primaries after the nominee has probably been already decided. But the most telling element of this rise is what his candidacy says — or doesn’t say — about the state of race in this country.

Three years ago, Barack Obama’s emergence as the front-runner in the Democratic primaries was widely understood as a barometer for race in the United States. His election spawned furious speculation that we had become a “post-racial” society. Yet his approach to governing highlights the ways in which these ideas were premature, or at least far more complicated than was generally acknowledged at the zenith of Obamamania.

The administration has been loath to address race directly, leading to tensions with some African Americans who think the president is either less willing or less able to address our specific needs than a white Democrat would be. Thus it became easy to believe that the white liberals who voted for Obama did so, in part, as a means of achieving cheap absolution for the nation’s racial sins.

That Cain’s campaign is so studiously scrubbed free of race is a commentary on the very racialization he eschews. His Web site features his stances on immigration, national security, taxation, energy and health care. There is no reference to civil rights concerns, disproportionate incarceration or what is, at this point, a racialized unemployment crisis. This is curious only because, unlike the other Republican candidates, Cain believes that he can win a solid third of the black vote. Late last month he said blacks have been “brainwashed” into voting for Democrats (always a smart move to insult the intelligence of people whose votes you’re seeking). But it would require a specific kind of brainwashing — the doctrine that epidermal allegiance should trump actual political interests — for Cain to win a third of an electorate whose key issues don’t even crack the top 10 on his Web site.

I don’t think that the President is willfully ignoring African Americans, no matter what any so-called poverty tour initiated by an Ivy League professor, who’s spent as much of his life as the President, intermingling exclusively amidst the white community, or his corporately-owned and financed cohort might say.

I do, however, agree with Smith that the President’s perceived silence on the matter has led various Progressives – who really never believed otherwise – to believe that at least the Left is beyond racism now, whilst their vote for candidate Obama in 2008, was a vote which gave absolution for the nation’s racist sins.

I say again, and I echo the late Joe Bageant in saying that the Democratic Party, which re-formed itself, post-1968, effected a “purge” which its reformers thought eliminated racism from the ranks of its party members. The reformers merely turned its back, collectively, on the rural Southern working class, the rural Midwest and the Rust Belt, declaring all those people to be rampant racists – never realising or acknowledging, even today, the existence of the peculiarly patronising form of racism which exudes itself from Progressive pores, merely as a matter of course.


Now the Republicans have an African-American frontrunner, who sorta kinda had a Rev Wright moment briefly, earlier this week when he objected to the name of a Texas hunting lodge owned by fellow GOPer candidate, Rick Perry. This will be remembered in history as “The Niggerhead Incident.”

I found it rather symbolic that Perry’s people, when they bought the property thirty years ago, had tried to whitewash the offensive name off the rock which identified the property. That’s exactly what Caucasian America, Left and Right, have been trying to do for the past forty years. Let’s face it – we all have to atone for the sin of slavery; and if the North and West think they’re exempt from such atonement, they need to ask themselves why there’s a United Daughters of the Confederacy and/or a Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in all of the fifty states. Or maybe they need to ask themselves why there are more sundown towns in California and New York than in all of the South.

When Cain objected to the name of Perry’s hunting camp, we were subjected to a collective whine from the GOP about how the hunting lodge name really wasn’t racist at all – it was Herman Cain playing the race card! (Remind you of any similar soundsemanating from the Left when Melissa Harris Perry made her observations on race and the President in The Nation?

Wow, talk about a man-in-the-mirror-moment!

As it was, Cain walked back his comments, out of political expediency – he is running for President after all; but as Smith points out in his article, this sets up another peculiar situation for absolution from a Republican perspective.

All this suggests that another, more curious kind of absolution is at work on the right this election season. It’s not one in which the country’s racial sins are forgiven, but one where blacks seek absolution for ever suspecting that there had been sins in the first place. At least that’s what it appeared to be when Cain played down his comments — the insensitivity of calling a slur insensitive.

At its most cynical, Cain’s campaign doesn’t offer redemption for the party associated with the Willie Horton ads, the terms “welfare queen” and “high-tech lynching,” and now “Niggerhead” so much as it suggests that there was never anything to be redeemed. Cain himself joined this mad parade of racial non-bigotry months earlier, saying he would ban Muslims from his Cabinet, or at least force them to sign special loyalty oaths. How can that be bigotry? A black guy said it.

Thus, the man-in-the-mirror-moment morphs into Alice through the looking glass, where – shock, horror – an African American can utter a remark which is totally and utterly bigoted against a demographic, and in some unusual way, this marks the GOP as exempt from any accusations of racism as the Democrats, past or present?

In one week, the Perry name fiasco has, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, turned the political world topsy turvy. First Rightwing radio doyenne, Laura Ingraham, reinvents the one-drop notion by declaring that Herman Cain, were he to win the 2012 election, would really be the nation’s first black President, considering the fact that Barack Obama’s mother was white. Then we have uber-Liberal and self-avowed socialist, Lawrence O’Donnell interview Cain, himself, and resort, almost openly, to questions chocked full of race bait.

Jesus, both sides are at it, which can only mean that it’s time to call time, sit down and have some sort of seminar or discussion about where we, the melting pot nation, are on racism – because there isn’t just white-on-black or black-on-white racism anymore. There’s the problem with illegal immigrants, most of whom are Latino. There’s the problem with Islamophobia, and Islam, being a religion, has many followers who are of all races.

At the moment – well, at least this week – Herman Cain is the GOP frontrunner. As Smith concludes in his article:-

Thus Cain’s ascent in the polls presents us with the tantalizing prospect, no matter how unlikely, that our next election will feature two African American men, neither of them post-racial but both somehow committed to publicly behaving as if we are. Cynicism, not racism, is now our foremost national sin. I plan to print up T-shirts reading “Election 2012: Vote for the Black Guy.” I expect to make a mint.

Ah, cynicism … maybe that’s why I’m thinking about Ralph Ellison and his seminal work entitled The Invisible Man.