Found this opinion piece in the NY Daily News. This is an excellent example of what an ‘ad hominem’ attack looks like. The opinion piece basically states that Herman Cain could not possibly be fit to be President because he “belittles Blacks while talking to white groups”. Mr. Cain simply expresses his authentic opinion, he was raised as a southern Black and speaks of those experiences. This pattern of speech has been consistent across all groups he has spoken to.
Herman Cain’s use of racial language is rhetoric we must refuse
BY ULLI K. RYDER
By now, you’ve surely heard of Herman Cain, the latest phenom in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Cain, a black businessman, has ridden the popularity among conservatives of his 9-9-9 tax plan to surge in national polls; he leads both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Iowa and is neck-and-neck with the erstwhile frontrunner in Florida.
Some people see in Cain simply a charismatic former Godfather’s Pizza CEO (“The Pizza You Can’t Refuse”). I see something else: a troubling statement about the role of race in our politics.
Recently, the New York Times ran a story suggesting that Cain’s use of humor and choice of words might not be so funny. At issue was Cain’s announcement that his Secret Service codename should be “Cornbread” and his use, often before white audiences, of phrases like “shucky-ducky.” He also claims that he likes to wear gold because it looks good against his “beautiful dark skin,” and he likens himself to Haagen-Dazs black walnut ice cream because he is, he claims, not just a flavor of the month.
For some people, these are nothing more than charming phrases; but for others, they raise the specter of race in ways that are unsettling. For example, “shucky-ducky” is a nonsensical phrase often associated with uneducated Southern blacks. Cain’s wish to be called “cornbread” is also troubling, since it can be viewed, like watermelon and fried chicken, as a stereotype applied to blacks.
Yes, Cain is himself a Southern-born black man who grew up in a lower-income family, so it would be unfair to insist he’s being inauthentic. But what is at issue here is how Cain uses these verbal tactics in front of white audiences; what Cain stands to gain from such strategies; and why these strategies seem to be working so well.
Let’s take a closer look. Cain holds a master’s degree from Purdue University. He is not an uneducated man. He is closely tied to the billionaire conservative Koch brothers, and his personal wealth is estimated at between $2.9 and $6.6 million.
So why the “cornbread” and “shuck-ducky” talk?
Here’s one reason: Black people have been the victims of stereotyping for the vast majority of our nation’s history.
Some of the most insidious prejudices are related to black achievement and education. President Obama has repeatedly been called some version of being an “articulate black man,” as if an articulate black man is so unusual a persona that it needs to be remarked upon.
Obama has been criticized as too elitist, Ivy League and — by Cain — not black enough. (“[Obama’s] never been a part of the black experience in America,” Cain said in a radio interview this month.)
Cain has chosen another path. In order to overcome these criticisms, it appears that he has gone in the opposite direction. His folksy, self-deprecating humor might be a serious attempt to put white audiences at ease.
And putting white audiences at ease is where the issue of minstrelsy comes in. Blackface minstrelsy, a performance style that relied on racist stereotypes and insulting characters such as Uncle Tom and Sambo, became a popular entertainment during the 1830s and persisted well into the 20th century. During this era, minstrel shows were marketed as authentic portrayals of “real” Southern blacks. The fact that these portrayals were full of stereotypes and inaccuracies helped spread and uphold white supremacy and allowed white audiences to feel secure in their superiority over blacks. These portrayals also helped whites ignore any guilt they may have felt — because the black minstrel characters were often happy and never showed any anger at whites for their mistreatment under slavery or Jim Crow laws.
We may never know the true motivations behind Cain’s public speech choices. He grew up in Atlanta, the son of a man who worked three jobs to support his family. He did not grow up wealthy. Are his choices rooted in this history? Perhaps.
But I see the very real and troubling possibility that Cain’s use of vernacular, and his casual assertion of a desire to be called “Cornbread,” may be ploys to put potential donors — many of them wealthy conservative whites with few, if any, ties to any black community — at ease. The fact is that Cain has been relying on the support of his conservative, wealthy allies, many of whom have political goals that are diametrically opposed to those of most black Americans, who tend to be troubled by economic inequality and favor more income distribution.
Cain’s use of black vernacular speech seems to be a way of telling right-wing audiences that he is a real black man, a real American and not a threat to the racial status quo of the nation.
Since the New York Times article in which I was quoted was published last week, I have received a number of emails and have seen commentary on a variety of websites. One of the most interesting responses said (in part) that, “[Cain] seems like a very nice man and also very real…I think he’s just not ashamed of his black heritage.”
What strikes me as noteworthy about this response is what it’s not addressing. To be clear, I never said Cain wasn’t a nice man. I don’t know him. He might be a great man to hang out with. He might not. But Cain’s personality is not the issue here. His use of race-based humor that demeans black people is.
Many critics have also questioned why I am so offended by Cain’s speech. The reason I find Cain’s race-baiting talk offensive is that there are real poor and under-educated blacks (and people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds) who don’t speak standard English. A reason they don’t speak standard English is that our nation has failed them in terms of education and opportunity.
Like Cain, I have not shared a similar fate. Like him, I grew up with great-grandparents who were the children of slaves and who had been sharecroppers on former southern plantations. They spoke black vernacular. They were illiterate. And they were that way because they were denied access to schooling, which in turn severely limited their opportunities for employment and upward mobility.
So when I hear Herman Cain playing up the stereotypes of my grandparents’ black speech for white audiences, I get offended. We whose families fought hard, over generations, to get a decent education for our children and their children shouldn’t make light of the kind of language (tied to discrimination) we have worked to move past.
I stand by my claim that Cain‘s speech is like a form of minstrelsy. This is very different from President Obama, who some say speaks “black” when in front of all-black audiences. In Obama’s case, the use of folksy speech tells his audience: “I am like you and I understand you.” For Cain, the effect is the opposite: “I do not look like you and I am not a threat to you.” It seems the most important question is: Why is either of these strategies necessary in 2011?
If we want to achieve real racial equality in America, then we must answer the question I have posed: Why does Cain rely on the old minstrel song and dance to court his conservative white audiences? There is, to me, only one answer: Race (and racism) matter more than any of us would like to admit in this, and in every, presidential race.
Ryder is a visiting scholar at Brown University and a member of the faculty at Simmons College.
Thanks for your attention.