STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Herman Cain's supporters may be sticking by him, but he's not been able to break through with one group - black voters. Polls show his candidacy has very little support among African-Americans. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this story about Herman Cain and the politics of race.
HERMAN CAIN: My father walked off of a farm in Arlington, Tennessee at the age of 18 with just the clothes on his back.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: When he tells his story, Herman Cain says a lot of the same things that have been preached in millions of black families since, well, Emancipation: work hard, save your money, get as much education as you can and make sure your children do, too. Despite that, he's gotten scant traction with black voters. Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy has written about race in politics and says that's not a huge surprise.
RANDALL KENNEDY: Black people know that if Herman Cain had his way, their lives would be diminished. And they intuit that Herman Cain's policies are against their interests.
BATES: Candidate Cain has said poor people are poor because they want to be, and has indicated that racism, if not a thing of the past, is of marginal importance in the 21st Century.
KAREN GRIGSY BATES, BYLINE: Kennedy says many black Americans find a recent ad run by Cain supporters to be particularly offensive. In it, Americans for Herman Cain compare then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas' angry statement about sexual harassment charges he faced in 1991 to Cain's current predicament.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)
CAIN: This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.
JACK WHITE: That analogy is one that rubs a lot of black people the wrong way because, frankly, if you're lynched, you don't get to talk about it.
BATES: Jack White writes political analysis for TheRoot.com. He believes Cain and his white supporters have struck a bargain.
WHITE: Basically, Herman Cain tells them what they want to hear about blacks, and in turn, they embrace him and say, see, that proves we aren't racist. He's even willing to be a minstrel for them, referring to himself sometimes as cornbread, or quoting his father as speaking ungrammatically, as saying, you know, things like I does not care.
BATES: It works well with some voters. Recently, Cain shared this revelation with ecstatic crowds at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation conference in Washington, D.C. It was funded by Cain's biggest supporters: the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, Charles and David.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
CAIN: This may be a breaking news announcement for the media.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
CAIN: I am the Koch brothers' brother from another mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND LAUGHTER)
BATES: Pundit Ann Coulter told Fox News that Cain and other black Republicans have to be smarter and tougher than most Democratic-leaning blacks, because they're swimming against community opinion, often at the cost of personal goodwill.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)
ANN COULTER: I mean, that's why our blacks are so much better than their blacks.
BATES: Observations like that may be why their blacks are so few in number. Cain does have black supporters, like Niger Innis and Alveda King, both descended from civil rights icons. But the numbers aren't huge. When asked why more blacks didn't join the Republican Party, Cain had a ready explanation.
CAIN: Because many African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view.
BATES: Cain has proudly described himself as authentically black, descended from slaves, able to speak in homey dialect, proud of his Southern roots. He likes contrasting himself to the president, who is black, but - he seems to imply - not as black.
University of Michigan Professor Vincent Hutchings studies the impact of race on political parties and campaigns. He says being Republican, even conservative, isn't enough for many white voters. They want to support a specific kind of black candidate.
VINCENT HUTCHINGS: They wouldn't have done this with, say, the equivalent of Colin Powell, right? So Colin Powell was seen as a moderate-to-liberal Republican. And he was also black, but he wouldn't have served the ideological purposes of that faction.
BATES: Cain tells the crowds who come to see him he is the real black deal, which may explain why - despite publicly being accused of sexual harassment by two white women so far - Herman Cain still enjoys steadfast support from his white conservative base. That he didn't risk the same fate as Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, is, for many, an odd measure of racial progress.
Michigan Professor Vince Hutchings says the harassment charges may cause a drop in his support eventually, but for now, Cain is still able.
HUTCHINGS: I would be loath to write off Herman Cain at this point. He may be crazy, but he's crazy like a fox.
BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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