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Is Herman Cain Racist?

I’m not following the lead up to 2012′s presidential election the way I hung on every Democratic and Republican candidate’s words in 2006 and 2007. Even still, it is hard to miss the major headlines, no matter how much one might try: Obama’s plunging poll numbers, critiques of Romney’s religious persuasion, Rick Perry’s n-worded family home, and the conspicuously growing journalistic indifference to anything at all Bachmann-related.

Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan might have gotten panned by several of his fellow candidates during last night’s Republican debate (including Bachmann’s likening it to a version of the Biblical “mark of the beast”), but it is the continued public “controversy” around Cain’s take on racism in America that seems to have everyone up in arms right now.

This all started when Cain dismissed racism as a significant cause for African-American marginalization. “I don’t believe that racism today holds anybody back in a big way.” That was the way he put it last week on Fox News.

Add to this the fact that just yesterday Cain characterized his black detractors as “more racist than the white people that they’re claiming to be racist,” a rehashing of chicken-egg counter-accusations of racism:

“You’re a racist.”

“Oh yeah, well, then you’re a racist for calling me a racist.”

“See what I mean. Only a racist would believe that.”

Of course, Cain’s comments about racism are unintelligible if disconnected from his consistent slamming of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement as a form of seemingly anti-American class warfare, a conspiracy between “unions and Obama supporters to distract the American people from the real problem, which is the failed policies of the Obama administration.”

Just this Monday, Cain spoke with conservative commentator Sean Hannity about the Occupy Wall Street protesters. “They’re trying to legitimize themselves by comparing themselves to the Tea Party movement,” he claimed. “There is absolutely no comparison.” According to Cain, the Tea Party represents a legitimate form of political opposition and civic engagement, but the Occupy Wall Streeters are rabble-rousing thugs, a merely apolitical mob.

It is a position shared by the black conservative pundit (can’t remember his name) who was on MSNBC last night complaining about all the public sex acts, violence, and other illegalities taking place under the banner of the Wall Street crowd. These exact same characterizations were mobilized by many conservative pundits during the Civil Rights Era to dismiss that movement as insincere and degenerate, as full of little more than sex freaks and criminals.The response to such dismissals is often the same: How can an African-American such as Cain (or that aforementioned and unnamed MSNBC pundit) celebrate an anti-Obama Tea Party over and against other forms of social protestation about social inequality and corporate greed?

Do figures like Cain represent a form of internalized anti-black racism, which is the critique that Cain seems most keen on challenging? Or is it simply (as if any of this were simple) a case of class-interests trumping racial solidarity for a wealthy former-CEO of a national fast food chain? The party/candidate that wins this ongoing debate about the relative significance of race vs. class for contemporary American society might just end up with the next set of keys to the White House.

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