Thursday, July 14, 2011

Herman Cain, Michael Irvin, and Debates about the Future of African-American Voting Patterns

South Carolina GOP Debate, May 2011

I had lunch today with two of my high-school classmates.  Well, actually, one of the two was a class ahead of the other two of us, I believe.  We try to get together as often as possible, and always have a great time when we do.

These two women (who happen to be cousins) want my help with a project in which they're keenly interested--turning the former African-American high school in our hometown in south Arkansas into a museum of black history for the region.  My two friends went to that school until the town's white school integrated in my final two years of high school.

It's in that context that I met them and began to develop a friendship that has blossomed now that we've reconnected later in life.  Due to the hard and fast color line in our Deep South community, my chances of having met them in other contexts were slim, since white and black folks lived in separate worlds in our hometown, even when many white families, including mine, had a black woman working within the household to clean, cook, and mind the family's children.  One of my two friends is the daughter of a woman who did precisely that all of her life for a socially prominent, wealthy white family in our town.

As we always do, we talked politics when we had lunch today, and my friends brought up the beyond-absurd claim of that Vander Plaats pledge which Mr. Santorum and Ms. Bachmann were willing to sign, that African-American children were better off in 1860 under the slave system than they are nowadays.  I asked what they thought of that statement (which got yanked out of the pledge after Santorum and Bachmann signed it), and my friends rolled their eyes.

Beyond absurd, they said. 

Then we got onto Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, and had another round of guffawing and eye-rolling.  I haven't really followed Cain's campaign, because, to be honest, I have great difficulty taking him seriously.  But I have that difficulty with all of the Republican candidates.  Bachmann has been more on my radar screen in recent days solely because of her signing of the Vandeer Plaats pledge and because of the publicity about the ex-gay therapy in which her husband's clinic engages.

I happened to catch Cain's new ad on Stephen Colbert's show two nights ago, and found it astonishing.  The ad features a country music song declaring Cain a son of the South, sung by a voice that, to my ear, is white and not African-American.  I can't think of a single one of my African-American friends or acquaintances who finds anything at all to admire in country music, precisely because it is almost exclusively a genre developed and dominated by white Southerners. 

And so what's Cain all about? I asked my friends after I had watched that ad.  Does he not have sufficient sense to see that he's cozying up to the sons and grandsons of the very men who did everything in their power to keep his parents and grandparents out of circles of power?  Cozying up to descendants of the men who stood in the schoolhouse doors and kept them barred to people of color, who set dogs and turned firehoses on civil rights protesters, who wrote the draconian Jim Crow laws that excluded African Americans from voting and returned them to conditions of quasi-slavery?

Those are the resonances of the voices I hear when I watch the ad for Cain and listen to the lyrics about how he's a son of the South.  I don't hear the resonances of Aretha Franklin, Paul Robeson, Eartha Kitt, or Sweet Honey in the Rock.  I don't hear the resonances of the hard-working people who longed for freedom and, as they labored in the fields, sang about Moses coming to set them free from servitude.

What is it with black political leaders who really don't see that the white Republican men with whom they're so eager to get into bed don't care anything at all about the well-being of people of color, I asked my friends?  And here's the conclusion we reached as we talked about these issues and the Cain campaign.

It's, of course, all about trying to populate the demographically dwindling voter rolls of the Republican party with any and all African-American voters that white Republicans can rake in by trying to divide the African-American community.  And by getting faith-based African-American voters to vote against their own social and economic best interests on the grounds of morality and family values.  Watch the Cain clip to which I've linked above (it begins at the 1:56 mark in the program), and you'll see smarmy cornpone images of an old-fashioned, self-reliant, church-centered (and heavily male-dominant) culture to which Cain imagines he can return the country, along with his good old boy white buddies of the Republican party.

Cain exemplifies a a retrogressive, heterosexist, patriarchal stance among some African Americans for whom issues of personal morality and religion trump issues of social and economic justice.  For whom issues of personal morality as defined by their churches trump issues of social and economic justice.

The neuralgic fear on which white Republicans who have little to no concern about socioeconomic justice for people of color keep working, in order to woo a handful of black voters to their party, is the fear of what will happen when women have power equal to men in every aspect of church and society.  And in which men are not automatically entitled to rule things solely because they're men.  And in which gay and lesbian people are no longer content to be despised second-class citizens.

Cain galvanizes a tiny minority of black voters who are responsive to these fear-based messages.  My African-American friends assure me he does not represent the political (or the religious and moral) thinking of almost any other members of the African-American community.  Not of almost everyone they know.

For their money, the more significant development in the black community right now, the one to keep our eyes on, is the choice of NFL Hall of Fame member Michael Irvin to speak out recently in favor of marriage equality, and to appear on the cover of Out magazine.  There's where the future lies, they think. 

And I wholeheartedly agree.

No comments: