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.
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.
Cain's gains: 'Weird white people acting up'?
These views, however, put him at odds with many in the black community. Moreover, Cain's take on racism hints at why the Republican Party can't make more inroads among blacks, despite the fact that African-Americans would generally appear to be sympathetic to Republican positions on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, say some analysts.
"African-Americans are incredibly rational in terms of their politics" and support for Democrats, says David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that focuses on black political issues.
Many blacks see economic inequality, incarceration rates for black men, and a host of other societal ills as being rooted in racism, he says. "I think most African-Americans see the Herman Cain phenomenon as 'weird white people acting up.' "
African-American support for the Republican Party peaked at 14 percent in 2004 but declined to 10 percent by the 2010 midterm elections, according to the Joint Center. While 96 percent of blacks voted for Mr. Obama in 2008, such overwhelming support suggests that it was more for Obama as the first black president than for his Democratic Party politics, researchers say.
Indeed, in recent years blacks have increasingly abandoned the Democratic Party to register as independents. Some 35 percent of young black voters identify as independents, an eight percentage point increase since the late 1990s. And even though the number of black politicians has risen by 370 percent since the 1960s, the overall economic welfare of blacks has slid during the same period, to the point where the wealth gap between blacks and whites reached a modern record this year, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. This has given rise to conservative, and competitive, black politicians like Cain, Rep. Tim Scott in South Carolina, and Rep. Allen West in Florida, experts say.
"There's always been an independent spirit within the black community, and Herman Cain is expressing that thread," says Omar Ali, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who studies black populism in the New South. "Yes, it's still a minority position, but it does highlight an increasing shift toward independents."
That might not be enough to help Republicans in 2012, even if Cain is their nominee. A recent North Carolina poll shows that only 8 percent of blacks preferred Cain over Obama – a far cry from the 30 percent that some pundits believe Cain could peel from black support for the president.
Yet there are signs that the central tenet of the political deal struck between blacks and the Democratic Party, first during the New Deal then during the civil rights era, is being challenged within the black community, polls suggest. Black identity is shifting away from the motive of collecting "the fruits of white guilt," writes Shelby Steele, a Hoover Institution scholar, in Harper's Monthly.
Growing economic divide fuels trend
Polling by Pew and other organizations indicates that large portions of the black community believe that they, as individuals, bear responsibility for improving their lot, and that many persistent inequalities between blacks and whites can't be blamed on whites alone. In a 2007 Pew report, 53 percent of blacks said they're "responsible for their own condition." A Washington Post poll for a series on black men showed that 6 in 10 black men said their collective problems have more to do with their own failures than with "what white people have done to blacks."
The growing economic divide between a black middle class and poor urban blacks is fueling that trend, says Emory University's Ms. Gillespie.
Black people "have many profound barriers, but racism is simply no longer one of them," adds Mr. Steele, a self-described "black conservative" and author of "White Guilt." "Yet we still have this mentality that, if I go into an auditorium and there's all black people there, we can talk about these issues frankly. But bring two or three white people in the room and you have to put on the mask of protest ... think collectively, protest victimization, and demand redress. It's difficult to break that."
If nothing else, the Cain candidacy represents one of the most significant efforts yet by a black American to broach that internal debate on a national stage, even though the debate has at times devolved into degrees of "blackness" and whether Cain or Obama lived the real "black experience."
"Part of what we're seeing from black leaders is desperate attempts to try to keep the black community in one camp, on the Democrat side, because they're the ones who have the most to lose if there continues to be ongoing diversification," says Mr. Ali in Greensboro.
At Morehouse College, the historic all-male African-American university in Atlanta that lists Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee along with Cain as alumni, Cain's ideals may run counter to the large percentage who voted for Obama. Cain's decision, on advice from his father to sit out the civil rights movement irks some here. But Cain is also a "Renaissance man" in the true spirit of the Morehouse ideal, others say.
Morehouse senior Lamar Leseur calls Cain a "good guy," who's well respected on campus. "His only problem is he hasn't come to see us," he says. "Yeah, I'm a Democrat and there are a lot of Democrats here, but there's a fair number of Republicans, too, and I think we'd all be interested in what he has to say."