By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Perhaps, I should first clarify what the term “nutjob” (sometimes written as “nut job”) means for people who aren’t familiar with this American slang. The word denotes a crazy, mentally unbalanced, eccentric person. And it perfectly describes Herman Cain, the brusque, notoriously Islamophobic, self-hating black American Republican presidential aspirant who has been stirring controversies since he announced a run for the Republican presidential nomination.
First, it is sufficiently odd that a black man would seek the presidential nomination of the Republican Party, a party that, until the early 2000s, officially embraced anti-black racism as an electoral strategy through what is known as the “southern strategy”—an invidious, unapologetically racist strategy of winning elections by actively mobilizing anti-black sentiments among whites in the American south.
(Before the 1960s, the Democratic Party was the racist, southern, anti-black party that supported slavery, and the Republican Party was the liberal, inclusive, northern party that freed blacks from slavery. This changed in the 1960s when the Democratic Party supported Civil Rights legislation for American blacks. Southern whites moved to the Republican Party in large numbers in protest. Since then, the switch in ideologies between the parties has remained constant).
Second, it is strange that a man who comes from a racial group that has historically been at the receiving end of systematic discrimination and exclusion would seek to anchor his campaign on visceral hate and bigotry.
So who is this Herman Cain and why should you care? Well, Cain is a rising, cranky, 65-year-old black Republican presidential candidate from Atlanta, Georgia. He once worked as the CEO of a pizza company called Godfather’s Pizza. He is also a former Navy man, a banker, and church minister, among many other not-so-spectacular positions he held. He came to national prominence in the 1990s when he challenged former President Bill Clinton in a televised town hall debate on Clinton’s healthcare plan. Many analysts attributed the death of Clinton’s healthcare to his encounter with Cain. That singular “feat” earned him a special place in the hearts of American conservatives.
In January 2011 when he announced a run for the nomination of the Republican Party to challenge President Obama in the 2012 presidential election, few people paid him any attention. Today, he is one of the leading Republican candidates. He is a favorite of the ultra-conservative, racist Tea Party movement. He has also been adjudged the winner of many Republican presidential debates. The once inconsequential, guffaw-inducing candidate is now a rising star.
But he is a dangerous star who only radiates hate and bigotry. The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning public policy research and advocacy group, fittingly characterized Cain as “the Islamophobia candidate.” And it’s a well-earned epithet. For instance, in an interview with Christianity Today, Cain was reminded of an incident he related where he said he was a “little uncomfortable” when he discovered that his cancer surgeon’s name was Abdallah until he “found out he was a Lebanese Christian.”
Do you know why he is uncomfortable with Muslims? “Based upon the little knowledge that I have of the Muslim religion,” Cain explained, “they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them.”
So a man who is seeking to be president of the world’s most powerful nation distrusts and hates over a billion people—who cut across the fault-lines of race, ethnicity, and geography—on the basis of a self-confessed “little knowledge” about them.
But it gets even scarier. On the basis of this “little knowledge” and the absurdly paranoid hate and fear it has inspired in him, Cain has said he will never appoint a Muslim in his administration. Never mind that Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Obviously, it is not only Islam and Muslims about which Cain has “little knowledge”; he also certainly has little knowledge of the constitution of his own country. Nothing illustrates the meaning of the age-old saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” more than this.
But it is not only Muslims that Cain hates and fears. He also hates immigrants—and himself. For instance, he resents being called “African American,” the preferred name to refer to American blacks. He says he is American first, Black second, and then Conservative. That makes him “ABC,” he says. The “ABC” stands for American Black Conservative.
Given his pitch dark complexion and unmistakable African features, it’s infinitely laughable that he is running away from his African heritage. The ABC initialism he claims as his identity could very well be “America’s Blackest Child,” the derogatory nickname kids gave Clarence Thomas, America’s only black Supreme Court Justice, when he was a kid. He was so called on account of his very dark skin.
Curiously, the same Cain who subordinates, and sometimes ridicules, his racial identity to please his white conservative audiences flashes the race card when he wants to denigrate Obama. For example, he told a white conservative group recently that the “liberal establishment” in America is “doubly scared that a real black man may run against Barack Obama.” Here, he is undisguisedly introducing a dangerous politics of racial purism. He is basically saying that because Obama is half white, he isn’t a “real black man.” And if he isn’t a “real black man,” he can only be a “fake black man” since Obama self-identifies as black. So, you see, Cain’s bigotry is multi-layered.
The good thing, though, is that Cain’s campaign is unlikely to be anything more than a comic sideshow. He has never won any elective position in his life; his lone attempt at running for the Republican Senate primary here in Atlanta in 2004 was a dismal failure; he won just 26 percent of the vote. That’s not the profile of a serious presidential candidate. Besides, the conservative whites who are egging him on would never vote for him when the tire hits the road, as Americans say.
But the bad thing is that Cain’s rising prominence is helping to mainstream the kind of fringe, socially insensitive bigotry that is the signature of his campaign. It is only hoped that the comicality of his candidacy will attenuate his bigotry in the public imagination.