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Herman Cain's other problem: African-Americans

Though his campaign caught fire for a time, many black voters did not embrace Herman Cain because he rejects institutional racism as a major issue. But his candidacy has exposed rifts in the black community.

By Staff writer / November 17, 2011

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain posed with police officers in front of his campaign bus in Detroit last month. Black support for the GOP peaked in 2004 at 14 percent and has fallen to 10 percent, a think tank reports.

Rebecc a Cook/Reuters



During his remarkable roller coaster ride into the top tier of Republican presidential candidates, Herman Cain has become both a darling of the tea party movement and target for withering criticism. For all the attention on allegations of sexual harassment, though, Mr. Cain has also come under attack from another group: black leaders.

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At times, the exchanges between Cain and leaders in the black community have been stunning.

Famous singer Harry Belafonte has called Cain unintelligent and a "bad apple." Activist Cornel West claimed that Cain's ideas are so delusional that he should stop smoking a "symbolic crack pipe." And the Root, a website that addresses issues in the black community, ran a headline that read: "Is Herman Cain the most unctuous black man alive?"

Cain's responses have been no less pointed. At one point he suggested that such criticism was close-minded and "brainwashed" blacks in order to keep them on the "Democrat plantation."

At issue is Cain's frontal assault on an idea that has bound the black community together politically for decades: He has largely repudiated the assertion that institutional racism continues to play a key role in why African-Americans lag far behind whites on nearly every economic and academic measure.

By bringing the issue out into the open, Cain has sparked a nearly unprecedented airing of the black community's political laundry on the national stage, analysts say. In the process, he has highlighted the small but growing section of the black population that has become firmly middle class and is, perhaps, more open to conservative political ideas.

The result is that three years after Barack Obama's successful presidential campaign united blacks with a renewed sense of purpose and possibility, Cain's campaign is revealing fissures within a community growing more politically diverse.

"Cain is actually in the mainstream amongst African-Americans on issues like abortion and even the role of racism in economic inequality," says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "He's definitely not saying something so out in left field that it's unrecognizable."

Cain's campaign has been thrown into doubt by allegations that he sexually harassed four women during his time as president of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. But Cain's rise in the polls before that point was largely due to his affable debating style and commitment to conservative orthodoxy – from a flat income tax to an antiabortion position. Despite being black, Cain put forward views on discrimination that fit neatly into that conservative narrative.

Cain doesn't discount the existence of racism and acknowledges that it may be part of why blacks only have 65 percent of the wealth of whites. But he contends that racism no longer hinders the progress of black individuals who are willing to work and pay a price for success.


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