Herman Cain arrives to address the Northern Virginia Technology Council… (Jonathan Ernst, Reuters )
Like many high-profile black conservatives, Herman Cain has relished his role as a racial contrarian. Cain grew up in the segregated South and came of age during the struggles of the civil rights movement. Yet he bridles at the notion that because he is black, he should be a Democrat, or that he is some kind of race traitor because of his ultraconservative ideology.
"I have been called 'Uncle Tom,' 'sellout,' 'Oreo,' 'shameless," Cain often tells his overwhelmingly white audiences as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination. "In the words of my grandfather," he said last spring in Iowa Falls, "I does not care. I does not care."
When singer Harry Belafonte, a liberal activist, recently called Cain a "bad apple," Cain reveled in the insult. Belafonte, said Cain, "was referring to the fact that I wouldn't stay on the Democrat plantation because I ran away and I ain't going back!"
But now that his campaign is floundering due to the emergence of sexual harassment allegations made when he ran the National Restaurant Assn. in the 1990s, Cain has advanced the idea that his race may be to blame for the controversy. Specifically, he has tied his situation to that of Clarence Thomas, who when accused of past sexual harassment in his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, attacked opponents for what he called a "high-tech lynching."
Cain sat for an interview Thursday with Thomas' wife, Virginia, a conservative activist, and later pleaded his case to Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Liberals, he said, "are trying to attack me to intimidate other black conservatives to not go public or to not think about looking at other ideas on the other side of the spectrum."
Some of Cain's high-profile defenders — notably Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh — revived the "high-tech lynching" metaphor. Americans for Herman Cain, an independent super PAC, used the phrase in a fundraising appeal that went out Tuesday in which it blamed "the left-wing media" for Cain's woes.
Politico reported Sunday night that two women had received settlements in the late 1990s after complaining of inappropriate behavior by Cain. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that one of two women involved received a $35,000 settlement, equal to a year's salary. A third woman surfaced in an Associated Press report Wednesday. Cain has said he never harassed anyone, though he left open the possibility that remarks had been misconstrued.
Many of Cain's defenders say the racial implications of the accusations are inescapable.
"The 'oversexed black man' is one of the most powerful negative charges," said Niger Innis, a friend of Cain's who runs the Congress for Racial Equality, a conservative group. "It has had a traumatic effect on the American psyche for 200 years."
Cain has certainly benefited from his rare status as a black corporate executive with presidential aspirations. He pleases tea party conservatives who, while appreciating his politics, also are sickened that others repeatedly accuse them of racism. His shoot-from-the-hip style and business background appealed to others fed up with traditional politicians.
Cain's is an all-American story: The child of a chauffeur and a domestic, he rose through the corporate ranks in the food industry at Pillsbury and Burger King, eventually becoming chief executive of the Godfather's Pizza chain. A cancer survivor who beat long odds to regain his health, he has been invited to sit on numerous corporate boards of directors, where he has diversified their ranks.
Born in Memphis and raised in Atlanta, Cain struggled in his early years to overcome racial barriers. He once drank at a "whites only" fountain to see how the water tasted. He has said he believes he was denied admission to two state universities, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia, because of racial quotas; he attended the historically black Morehouse College, where he majored in math.
As a young adult in the late 1960s, he did not participate in the civil rights movement, heeding the advice of his father: "Dad always said, 'Stay out of trouble,' and we did," wrote Cain in his memoir. "We decided to move to the back of the bus to avoid trouble when the bus driver told us to."
Although Cain insists that race is not a factor in his candidacy, he barrels forthrightly into the topic in every speech. That is a stark contrast to candidate Barack Obama, who often treated the subject gingerly.
To liberals, Cain's formula is simple: "Cain is trying to use his race as an advantage with the extreme right wing," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who ran for president in 2004 and now works for MSNBC. "The irony is that a lot of blacks say the president doesn't bring up race enough. Rarely does Cain not bring it up, and he's not even talking to blacks."