Let's leave aside the question of whether Herman Cain, the businessman and activist currently leading the anti-establishment contingent in the Republican primaries, is truly presidential material. Whatever his merits or electability, Cain has inevitably drawn attention as the only African-American in the field. And, as a black Republican linked to the Tea Party—a movement often accused of racial animosity toward Barack Obama—he has become a magnet for a peculiar left-wing brand of race-baiting.
One notorious display of this attitude occurred earlier this month on the MSNBC program "The Last Word," when host Lawrence O'Donnell berated Cain for his failure to participate in the civil rights protests of the 1960s as a teenager and young adult in the South.
In his just-published autobiography, Cain writes that he and his brother would reluctantly move to the back on the bus when told to do so by the driver, minding their father's admonition to "stay out of trouble." Where, O'Donnell sarcastically inquired, would blacks be now if Rosa Parks had followed such advice? When Cain reasonably replied that his father's advice was not to Rosa Parks but to his high school-age sons, O'Donnell went on to push him on his lack of activism in college.
Even many left-of-center observers, such as Mediate.com columnist Tommy Christopher, were aghast at the spectacle of a white liberal smugly chiding a black man for the personal choices he made in a very difficult time. (Those choices included breaking down professional barriers by going to graduate school and pursuing a career in computer science.) What's more, as MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris Perry noted, there is a blatant double standard at work: white politicians of Cain's generation are not grilled on what they did in the civil rights movement. Bill Clinton, often praised for his unique ability to connect with African-Americans, attended college at the same time as Cain and worked as an intern in a segregationist senator's office.
Nonetheless, some left-wing blogs have cheered O'Donnell's supposed takedown of Cain—and others have peddled even nastier fare. Chauncey de Vega, a blogger at OpenSalon.com, calls Cain a "professional racism apologist," a "race traitor," and a "human parrot" for right-wing white bigots, and even accuses Cain of using his memories of growing up black under Jim Crow to pander to racists. Cain has told the story of how he and his brother once daringly drank from the "whites only" fountain, and then "looked at each other and said, the water tastes the same! What's the big deal?" Clearly, his point is how absurd racism looks through the innocent eyes of a child. Yet de Vega manages to twist this into a defense of segregation as harmless.
Such bizarre distortions are echoed by leftist posters on other sites. In comments threads, the vileness reigns almost unchecked: Cain has been labeled a "house Negro" (or worse) and a "lawn jockey," and mocked in blatantly racist terms.
Meanwhile, Slate columnist David Weigel asks whether Cain's rise as a Tea Party favorite refutes charges that the movement is racist, and predictably answers no. For evidence, Weigel turns to Christopher Parker, a University of Washington political scientist and lead author of a 2010 study which concluded that Tea Party "true believers" tended to be more racist than other white Americans. Of course, Parker defines racism broadly enough to include the belief that "Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up, blacks should do the same without special favors"—a sentiment that Cain both endorses and seems to validate by his own example.
Yes, some people who harbor prejudice toward a minority group may make an exception for the "good" member of that minority. Do some self-proclaimed Cain supporters see him as the exceptional "good black"? Probably so, especially since the odds of Cain actually being elected are so slim that supporting him is more a statement of emotional and cultural solidarity than an act of political support. But if such attitudes are a form of racism, then surely so is a "liberalism" that lampoons black conservatives as lackeys doing the step and shuffle for their white masters.
The truth is that, for all the progress since the civil rights era, our culture is still infected with race-based thinking. Race is also a uniquely incendiary topic in America, and therefore a perfect weapon to manipulate emotions across the political spectrum. Liberals accuse conservatives of wanting to bring back Jim Crow; conservatives liken the black community's allegiance to Democrats to plantation slavery. And yes, some on the right have engaged in racially tinged anti-Obama rhetoric (Obama-as-witch-doctor posters, anyone?). But what happens when the left faces a black opponent? Just ask Herman Cain.
Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.