Like Condoleezza Rice, Herman Cain doesn’t need Harry Belafonte to tell him what it means to be black — but it looks like the legendary singer is just as willing to reject Cain’s life experiences as a legitimate example of what it means to grow up black in America as he was to reject the life experiences of Rice and Colin Powell in 2002. Remember when he compared the two of them to “house slaves” who would retain their privileged positions only for as long as they did what “the master” wanted?
He doesn’t have anything nice to say about Herman Cain, either. In an interview with HLN’s Joy Behar, Belafonte said Herman Cain was “denied intelligence” and called him “a bad apple.”
“I just want to make this observation about Herman Cain,” Belafonte said. “The Republican Party, the Tea Party and all those forces to the extreme right have consistently tried to come up with a representation for what they call black … and tried to push these images … They’ve got Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. They’re heroes for some people, but for a lot of us they’re not. And Herman Cain is just the latest incarnation of what is totally false to the needs of our community and the needs of our nation!”
This truly troubles me. Maybe I just wasn’t tuned into the talk of race when George W. Bush was president or when Barack Obama’s election was touted as the key to a post-racial society, but the constant accusations this cycle of Tea Party racism, of the GOP propping Cain up as some kind of puppet, seem sharper, more acerbic and more frequent than anything I recall hearing growing up.
In an interesting article on The Fix, Rachel Weiner quotes Eddie Glaude, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton. “The way in which he invokes race is in its most benign way, with the most benign assurances,” Glaude said. “He confirms conservative views about how race functions in the political domain.”
The implication is that conservatives like to hear Cain talk about race because he reassures us that it’s no longer a factor in a person’s success in the United States. Certainly, Cain’s message — that racism doesn’t “hold anybody back in a big way” — is a hopeful one … but only if it’s true. Is it?
To judge by comments from Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson and Harry Belafonte, it’s not. All of these men — Herman Cain included — experienced the segregated South. No doubt they can all cite specific examples of racism holding them back. Belafonte, for one, refused to perform in the South from 1954 to 1961. Those memories must run so very, very deep.
But might the memories be all that’s holding anybody back? Will the time never come to let go? That’s tricky, I know: Those who forget history are destined to repeat it, as they say. But maybe remembering it destines us to repeat it, too. Wouldn’t the better approach be a proactive, transcendent one — one in which we all decide to stop focusing on obstacles to our own success and start focusing instead on what can be done to solve the problems we face?
We’re all guilty of this: We fixate on the ways we’ve been treated unfairly to our disadvantage and forget the ways we’ve been treated unfairly to our advantage. Maybe it’s cliche to say it, but life really isn’t fair. As I’ve written before, Herman Cain’s great promise isn’t a post-racial one. Prejudice of all kinds — racial, religious, ideological, etc. — will continue to exist no matter who is elected president and when. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to eradicate it — just that we shouldn’t expect it. In the meantime, we should embrace Herman Cain’s promise of the payoff of personal responsibility — because, in the end, that’s all any of us can control … ourselves.
Update: The embedded video in this post was originally of a different segment on Joy Behar’s show. The video above is the correct Harry Belafonte interview.