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Cain raises question of black conservatism

A long-shot presidential campaign illustrates the complexity of African American politics.

By Melissa Harris-Perry

I have watched Herman Cain's presidential campaign video repeatedly. It's a four-minute glimpse into one of the least understood aspects of American political life: black conservatism.

The initial impulse among many Democrats (and, frankly, most Republicans) is to dismiss Cain's bid as quixotic and incomprehensible. I understand that impulse. I do not think Cain will secure the GOP nomination for the presidency. And I understand why devoting media coverage to an unlikely campaign can seem wasteful and distracting.

But the Cain video, and potentially the campaign itself, are worth understanding. Here are a few things I love about Herman Cain - and by "love," I mean I find them fascinating and worthy of study.

Cain reminds us that black political ideas are complex. I became fascinated with black conservatism while writing my first book. In it, I argued that it's ahistorical to dismiss black conservatives as race traitors laboring under a false ideology.

Conservatism has deep roots among African Americans. It appeals to self-help, views the state as overly intrusive, believes free markets are nondiscriminatory, and stresses that political strategies to address inequality are inferior to economic empowerment.

The core theme of black conservatism is self-uplift. Unlike its white counterpart, it does not ignore racial inequality or depend on racial animus. It justifies itself as a strategy for achieving equality by rejecting policies that create a perception of undeserved benefits and diminish the honor of black people. It acknowledges past discrimination but blames current inequalities more on behavioral pathologies - unwed motherhood, drug addiction, hip-hop culture - than on racism. Thus, it concludes that African Americans must fortify their moral and economic strength in order to compete.

Although only a small fraction of black people identify with the GOP, these underlying tenets of conservatism are more widely shared among African Americans. And it is those aspects of conservatism that I see Cain tapping in his nascent, underdog campaign.

They are as important and indigenous to black political culture as progressive demands for race-conscious, government-based strategies to address inequality. Indeed, President Obama's strategic deployment of racial conservatism - for example, in demanding black male accountability - may appeal to black Democrats who see themselves as socially conservative.

Cain's campaign is "keeping it real." Log on to Cain's campaign website, and you'll find the words "Let's Get Real." Getting real has an interesting double meaning, reflecting tea-party sentiment as well as dated black youth slang emphasizing racial authenticity.

In Cain's campaign video, he reminds us that his grandparents were slaves and that he is now running for president, adding, "Isn't America great?" Cain is doing two things here. First, he's expressing American triumphalism and suggesting the nation has conquered its racist past. That's for the tea-party audience. But he is also reminding us that Obama is not descended from American slaves. That's for the black audience.

I've seen this strategy before. In 2004, in a debate with then-Senate candidate Obama, Republican candidate Alan Keyes, a black conservative, was asked if he supported reparations for slavery. Stunning many, Keyes replied, "Yes." Then he added, "And Mr. Obama will not be eligible for any, because while I am descended from American slaves, he is not."

It was a weird moment that disrupted easy assumptions about racial authenticity. Keyes may have been the Republican. He may have been called an Uncle Tom. But he had laid claim to a form of black "realness" unavailable to Obama.

Herman Cain's "up from" story resonates with familiar strains of heroic Booker T. Washington-ism. His staunch determination, despite being dismissed as a laughably unlikely candidate, appeals to a black tradition of political defiance. And his personal trajectory - from a slave past and a childhood in the rural South, through esteemed Morehouse College, and on to entrepreneurial success - is likely familiar to many African Americans. One can disagree with Cain, but it is tough to deny that he is authentically black.

Cain's authenticity claims are ripe for inclusion in one of Dave Chapelle's "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong" skits, but they are not alien.

Cain reminds us of the danger of simplistic racial arguments. Cain's candidacy is a cautionary tale about the simplistic racial reasoning that has dominated American discourse in the past few years. Meaningfully confronting Cain's claims of racial authenticity, and his insistence that his candidacy proves the tea party is not racist, requires a far more complex understanding.

I suggest we do away with all blacker-than-thou arguments. Engaging in such authenticity litmus tests allows us to imagine that biography determines political solidarity. Cain is a reminder that it does not.

Furthermore, we need to bury the idea that racism is primarily about saying mean or unflattering things about black people, and specifically about Obama. Discussions of American racism should be about addressing policies and practices that create or deepen racially unequal outcomes.

Racial animus might have prompted the nasty signs about the president at anti-health-care-reform rallies, but who cares? It's the continuing racial health disparities that matter. When some whites refuse to vote for Obama, it might be because of racism, but I am much more interested in the racism of voting regulations that states are imposing.

If we allow white Democrats to believe supporting Obama protects them from racial criticism, we have to extend that logic to Republican supporters of Cain. Both notions are ridiculous. One's willingness to support a black candidate is not politically relevant. Being antiracist is about embracing policies that reduce unfairness and inequality.

Herman Cain will not be the president of the United States. But that doesn't mean we should ignore him.