Which is the real story of social progress?

Jesse Holland of the AP has a fairly neutral analysis this week on a question which has been percolating in conservative circles during the rapid ascent of presidential candidate Herman Cain. After years beyond count where the Right has continually accused liberals of playing the race card – particularly during the 2008 elections – is the shoe on the other foot? And perhaps more importantly, how are we defining “social progress” in an era when old beliefs are being continually challenged by the images flashing by on cable news?

Herman Cain’s rise as a presidential contender was supposed to prove that race didn’t matter in the Republican Party. Cain is fast making it the only thing that does.

The black conservative is trying to navigate around allegations that he sexually harassed at least three women, implying that the accusations surfaced because he is black. Hours after the claims were reported, Cain’s supporters branded his trouble a “high-tech lynching.” That’s the term coined 20 years ago by another black conservative, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, after his confirmation hearings for the court were rocked by allegations of sexual harassment.

Cain’s supporters have pinned blame on a white GOP presidential rival, on liberals afraid of a “strong black conservative” and on mainstream media interested in “guilty until proven innocent.” But by playing the race card with the Thomas precedent, his backers belied the “post-racial” America that President Barack Obama was said to have brought about in the United States — and that they, too, promote.

While I still don’t see how Cain winds up getting the nomination, (but don’t go by me… I’ve been wrong more than a few times) his candidacy has opened up some worthwhile questions and, possibly, some good reasons for optimism. It doesn’t come without more than a few bumps in the road along the way, however.

I will say right up front that I’ve been disappointed in not only Cain’s supporters, but the candidate himself, for taking a path which certainly does fit the profile of “playing the race card” in the recent sexual harassment stories. Conservatives, after years of being accused by -some – liberals of harboring sub-textual racism when they criticize Obama’s policies, now find themselves leveling similar accusations at Cain’s detractors. It should be enough for us to let the charges be heard and stand or fall on their own merit, or lack thereof. If real wrongdoing is discovered, the candidate will take the hit. If not, he survives what turns out to be a largely political assault.

But we shouldn’t pretend that these discussions aren’t taking place on the Left. One of the worst examples came during the second hour of Chris Hayes’ Saturday morning MSNBC show on November 5th. (You can watch the exchange yourself at the link. It kicks off right at the beginning.) He was interviewing Kimberle Crenshaw of the Columbia Law School who launched into a jaw dropping diatribe, describing Herman Cain as being “black when convenient,” with the show’s panel of guests going even further. Cain was effectively described as being what would only amount to the worst sort of “token” in the American political spectrum – a conservative black man who somehow gives cover to the Right, allowing them to say, “See? We’re not racists after all! We’re supporting Cain!

This is, if anything, even worse than the criticism coming from Cain’s own party, and the implications are obvious and offensive. But with each telling of Cain’s story – which, to their credit, they did on the show – a different and highly interesting parallel emerges. It’s the pointed contrast between the ascension of two men – Cain and Barack Obama. As we struggle with how far the nation has come in terms of racial equality, which of these stories is the more impressive one?

Barack Obama was steeped in liberal culture wars and seemingly groomed for politics from his college years. He rose quickly in the ranks of a Democratic political machine in “the Chicago way” where doors would magically open for him (and close just as mysteriously on some of his opponents) provided he played ball and stuck to the machine politics script.

Cain is older. (Sorry to point out an obvious fact.) He had to make his way up beginning in a time when opportunities were far fewer and the climb was far more steep. And he didn’t do it in politics. He came from a very modest economic background and rose up on his own merits to achieve success in the decidedly competitive (and, in those days, frequently racially hostile) world of private business. It absolutely is a stunning story, and his biography should be an inspiration to people of all political stripes whether he eventually wins the nomination and the presidency or not.

These examples should serve as a lesson to both sides. Cain and his supporters should stop chasing racism as part of a defense strategy, real or not, and focus on the issues and the facts. And people on the left should take this opportunity for some introspection before they quickly jump on accusations of Cain being an “Uncle Tom” and demonstrate some respect for what he accomplished under conditions more challenging than most of them could even imagine.