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Tea Party Tally

Tea party fuels rise of Herman Cain. So how can it be racist?

Herman Cain surged to the top of the GOP presidential field in one poll on Thursday, buttressed by strong tea party support. Tea party backers say that shows the movement isn't racist.

By Staff writer / October 13, 2011

Republican presidential hopeful businessman Herman Cain speaks as former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman listens at the Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Scott Eells/REUTERS

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Back in March, when he was simply one among many candidates vying for the top spot in the GOP presidential contest, former pizza magnate and Atlanta talk show host Herman Cain wrote about his relationship with tea party voters: "Could the people who are part of this massive citizens' movement be looking past the color of my skin?"

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As Mr. Cain surged for the first time to the top of the GOP field in one poll on Thursday, buttressed by strong tea party support, his rhetorical question appears prophetic. A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll gave Cain a 69 percent "favorable" score among tea-party backers.

Most tea partyers credit the blunt, plainspoken, and happily iconoclastic Cain for being "real" and "not a politician" as the cornerstones of their support. But to many who decry the charge that the tea party is racist, Cain's rise is a none-too-subtle pushback.

"I find it funny that the 'racist' tea party is now rallying behind a black candidate," said one female tea party adherent from Texas who responded to the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.

Cain's surge this week provided a new twist on the notion that the tea party is merely hiding its racism behind a black candidate, as some critics have contended.

"Part of this debate, and what people are having a problem with, is how Cain's tea party support is tied to groups of people who don't recognize systemic racism," says Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "And that feeds into this 'token' argument, that he's being duped or exploited by the tea party in order to prove that they're not racist."

For his part, Cain has defended the tea party, saying its supporters are simply ideologically aligned with his own beliefs that, while racism may still play a role in America, it's no longer a defining factor guiding each individual's plight.

"People sometimes hold themselves back because they want to use racism as an excuse for them not being able to achieve what they want to achieve," Cain told CNN's Candy Crowley this week.

To many liberals, Cain's viewpoints peg him as a "bad apple," in the words of singer Harry Belanfonte. Other black commentators hit harder: Cain is marketing himself as "the dark-faced puppet of those who are afraid to touch the issue [of race]," writes Syracuse University professor Boyce Watkins on the website, News One.

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