Reducing Cain to Race

Here’s another example (this time from Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for Bloomberg and then repeating the sentiment briefly at The Atlantic) of the absurd, ongoing media narrative about Herman Cain. It’s very simple: attach something faintly condescending about pizza to Cain’s name as an epithet, and then attribute his appeal primarily to the fact that his blackness makes Tea Party types feel excused for their racist reactions to President Obama.

Presumably, this argument is meant to reveal both the racism of Tea Partiers and the way Cain caters to it, by painting Obama as a foreign outsider and himself as the All-American descendant of slaves. However, the relentless focus on Cain’s race in the media, instead of analysis or criticism of the appeal his policy proposals or personal resume might have for voters, strikes me as far more offensive. When the media talks only about his race, it’s as if they aren’t taking him seriously as a candidate, or acknowledging that he has any ideas that might matter to people. This is not to say that race can’t be part of the discussion, of course. Cain does not avoid discussing race, his childhood in the segregated South, or his experiences with racism. He is dismissive of Obama’s background, but on the grounds that Obama is somehow tainted by all his time spent in academia, as an intellectual outsider to the mainstream. I disagree with Cain if he is suggesting that this is a liability for Obama as a leader, but there is nothing racist or racism-excusing about Cain’s discussion of Obama or himself.

The topic of primary interest to the media, unfortunately, seems to be the candidate’s race. If we’re going to focus on biography, I’d find it far more interesting to hear about Cain’s background in the Navy, and why he pursued mathematics and computer science. I’d like to know why, after rising to a business vice-presidency, he chose to go back for training in a Burger King just like any other employee from the ground-level up. How did the insights gained help him to turn around the profitability of a whole region? I want to know what Cain learned during his time with the Federal Reserve in Kansas City that influences what he thinks about economic policy today. Indeed, one reason I’m so eager to hear more about these topics is that I disagree with many of Cain’s proposals, especially on tax policy, and I’d like to know what he’s thinking that I might have overlooked. For the average Republican, though, Cain’s ideas about business, taxes, and social policy are music to the ears, so it’s not surprising why they’d want to vote for him regardless of race.

In addition, despite disagreeing with Cain on various issues, I appreciate his clear, fearless, no-nonsense way of speaking. I feel that I know exactly what I’d be getting with this guy–like it or not–and that so seldom seems true of politicians. He has a personal charisma that has nothing to do with either his race or with how voters may feel about Obama. [Hey, just check out the picture above: how can you deny that hat, if nothing else?!] Cain comes across as an “elder statesman” who has expertise in many areas, knows how to get things done effectively, speaks frankly to the press, overcomes obstacles and is not easily thwarted, and is shaking up the field of otherwise unappealing conservative candidates. Given these obvious reasons for his appeal–even to those who disagree with much of his stated platform–why do so many in the media delight in dredging up smears about Tea Party racism, reducing Cain simply to his appeal as The Black Conservative, in order to grasp why he’s gaining popularity? Meanwhile, the real story is passing them by, and it does all of us a disservice.

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