Pundits love to pontificate at length about the unbridgeable ideological gulf between America’s two political parties, but if there’s one thing that liberals and conservatives still have in common, it’s the love of some good, old-fashioned, Monday afternoon race-baiting. Be it Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s inability to comprehend how Hispanics could possibly vote Republican, or dyspeptic radioman Rush Limbaugh’s declaration that an isolated incident of school-bus bullying emblematized the new racial reality of “Obama’s America,” there’s nothing that both sides enjoy more than having themselves a little racial mudbath. It’s a guilty pleasure.
When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples—a once-vital organization that has long since outlived its utility—“officially” labels the Tea Party a racist organization (as if this “official” designation had any currency), no one takes it seriously. That’s just what liberals do: accuse those who disagree with them of racism and move on, just as conservatives charge their adversaries with socialism and move on. Of course, both sides are being outrageously hypocritical, but it’s all in good fun. Democrats strengthen their electoral stranglehold on the black and Latino vote, Republicans further solidify their support among white voters, and slowly the dream of a post-racial, color-blind society withers away.
None of this is new or interesting. What is somewhat new and somewhat (I think, at least) interesting, is the recent phenomenon of black conservatives playing the race card with equal and greater brio (if perhaps less finesse) than their liberal counterparts.
Take for example, the walking oddity that is ex-Godfather’s Pizza CEO and Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain. Preaching before a raucous group of Iowa Republicans in March, Cain noted, sensibly, that “if you’re black and you disagree with the president [it doesn't imply racism]…It may shock you but some black people can think for themselves.” But sensibility being a deal-breaker in today’s Republican Party, Cain also blustered about being called a racist “because I won’t stay on the Democrat plantation like I’m supposed to.”
Newly-elected Florida Congressman Allen West, likewise, invoked the vernacular of slavery in his response to the NAACP’s aforementioned theatrics, accusing it of being “a political hack job organization which now seeks to maintain the liberal progressive socialist control of the 21[st] century plantation. It is on this new economic plantation where the liberals seek to enslave the black community in order to maintain a devoted, monolithic, voting electorate.”
While Cain and West’s mutual affinity for the word “plantation” is perhaps the most incendiary example of their rhetorical obsession with race, it is hardly the only example. Back in November, in a display of identity politics that would make most Democrats blush, West attributed the outrage over his appointment of local radio personality Joyce Kauffman—who in 2007 called for the hanging of illegal aliens—as his chief of staff to nothing more than liberal racism and misogyny. And whether noting that President Obama “is not the president of black people” or beseeching voters not to “condemn me because the first black [president] was bad,” Cain’s manic fixation on the president’s blackness lends credence to the proposition that Cain’s entire political identity is predicated on the notion that he is a sort of black anti-Obama.
What is so curious and peculiar about this particular strain of race-baiting is how self-destructive it is. Sure, all race-baiting is self-destructive to a degree: no one (besides Limbaugh, perhaps) wants to be known as a race-baiter. But race-baiting by black Republicans does something entirely new and different: it emphasizes their blackness in a way that cannot be anything other than politically and socially disadvantageous. It turns them into the “black candidate.”
It is impossible to imagine President Obama—for all of his flaws—talking about race in the same, crazed tenor in which Cain and West speak about race. Granted, the president’s supporters do it all the time, but one of the reasons why Obama is president today is because he declined to embrace the inflammatory racial rhetoric of black politicians past like Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. In this way, American black liberalism is far more politically mature than American black conservatism—ABC, as Cain likes to call it. But it was not always so; one need only look back to the 1990s and even the early 2000s—the era of General Colin Powell and Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts—to discover that black conservatism was once capable of existing outside the context of aversion to black liberalism. Today’s black conservatives, on the other hand, are wholly defined by this aversion, and their predisposition toward couching their conservatism in the language of race indicates that it is an aversion specifically to black liberalism, not just liberalism.
This coupling of antipathy toward traditional, Democratic liberalism with an overly vitriolic preoccupation with race calls into question the very legitimacy of Cain, West, and their ilk’s ideology. It gives the impression, accurate or inaccurate, that their conservatism could be nothing more than the product of a troubled relationship with their racial identity, a reaction against their blackness. And conservatism borne out of such racial self-contempt is, quite frankly, as unimpressive, as uninspiring, as unimaginative, and as uninteresting as the monolithic liberalism of black Democrats.
Dhruv K. Singhal, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.