A great many people, myself included, think that Republicans are assholes (…and some of them even use that term as self-description). Whether it is implicitly (and explicitly) applauding the proposition that people without health insurance just have to die in case of an accident or illness rather than have some form of “big government” stepping in, plain fundamentalist anti-woman policies, heterosexist obsessions or the usual racist crap they pull every other day (and every now and then very subtly on Barack Obama) – Republicans seem determined to represent as many discriminatory structures as humanly possible.
Now that Sarah Palin is out of the running, Michele Bachmann is struggling, Rick Perry is risking his neck with careless talk, Ron Paul is as ineligible as ever and Newt Gingrich = uh, please… -, the frontrunners for the presidential nomination seem to be Mitt Romney (no surprises here) and, whoa!, Herman Cain, who, besides Michael Steele, is one of the very few African American Republicans who has made it into the spotlight in recent years, and who now ties with Romney in certain polls.
However, Cain’s compelling success story has many chapters – and one of them was recently uncovered: he has been accused of sexual harassment multiple times in the late 1990s whilst being chief executive of the National Restaurant Association. Moreover, one of his accusers actually received a year ‘s salary in severance pay in an out-of-court settlement. Three women have independently accused Cain of molesting them, and he seems to have a hard time to not conflate the charges [cf. last link]. In my opinion, the mere fact that he can’t tell the “alleged” incidents apart suggests that this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you can’t remember what happened in what “alleged” molestation situation, you’ve probably harassed more than three people more than once. And when Cain says that the harassment charges stem from joking around with a woman about her height, I presume he must be joking about women’s intelligence. As a friend of mine, Sarah, has put it:
it makes me sick to read the comments and see how many people assume that women would willingly go through the awful process of registering sexual harassment charges just for some perverse sense of ‘fun’ or financial gain.
A compliment about your hair or an offhanded joke about not being able to reach the top shelf might be annoying and condescending, but it is certainly far from being considered sexual harassment before the law. Telling someone you like their dress is not sexual harassment – telling them how great their ass looks in it – yeah, that would be it. So, Herman, think again – it might not only have been the woman’s height you were talking about.
As it was to be expected, however, many Republicans can’t help but make fun of sexual harassment, and essentially call it overly politically correct (“you can’t say anything anymore these days…”-type of stuff). One of the most horrid people on the planet, Rush Limbaugh, calls sexual harassment a “political tool of the Left”, and he might just be right (haha): Not letting random people grope you sure makes overt misogyny more complicated, so I guess that sucks for right-wingers like him. And sure, not everyone can harass as skillfully as smooth-falafel-talking Bill O’Reilly…
Herman Cain, however, has found his own special strategy to counter bad harassment-PR by invoking Clarence Thomas’s infamous meme when faced with the charges by Anita Hill, being nominated as Supreme Court judge. Cain does the one thing Republicans hate: “pulling the race card”, i.e., actually being able to openly acknowledge that he is an African American man and, subsequently, has to deal with a racist surrounding. This seems remarkable, given Cain’s rather ultraconservative ideology which seems to be at odds with the experiences of the vast majority of people of colour. Invoking Thomas’s claim that he was subjected to a “high-tech lynching”, Cain told Fox News that this was a liberal defamation campaign against a Black conservative, and supporters referred to the longstanding historical prejudice of the “oversexed”, predatory African American man, now shown as this alleged full-fledged racist backlash against Herman Cain.
Indeed, the thought of an African American ultraconservative is something that would not spring to mind as a common thing immediately; not in liberal, and I suspect even less in conservative circles. Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chairman, even admitted that some of his fellow white Republicans were scared of him because he is a Black man; and Bill O’Reilly demonstrated wonderfully what some of his fellow white people still think of African American-owned restaurants in Harlem where he apparently expected people to yell for sweet tea and talk all gangsta…
Therefore, a prominent African American conservative who actually seems to have a shot at a presidential nomination strikes me as a partial win, somehow. It seems to be a neighbouring dilemma to that of Sarah Palin, however: striking down one boundary and simultaneously putting up a whole lot of others. Obviously, it is important to not put any racialized group of people into the same box (e.g., “all Black people are Democrats” – especially since that has never been true anyway, not only historically…) and expect a certain behaviour because of a certain skin colour (back to unsubtle racism, anyone…?), albeit it a political one. On the other hand, the problem seems to be that the conservative policies that Herman Cain or Sarah Palin follow are diametral to the interests of the vast majority of people of colour and women, in both cases. And this seems to still prove the old rule that in order to be succesful in a profoundly conservative environment, you need to be (or at least: act) as ultraconservative as possible to get a standing (due to a hardline reputation, not because of some sort of sense of equality or justice on part of the conservative environment), even though it were the people who’s legacy you are now fighting who broke the ground which is now your way up in the first place (i.e., the civil rights movement, etc.). You might even have to be as sexist or (subtly) racist or homophobic as possible to make it because this is when white people/men/heterosexual people/rich people stop being so afraid that you might take their place and are happy to have you as a fig leaf.
But here is where the big “However” comes in: Despite the fact that one can view the ultraconservatism of Cain or Palin or Bachman as completely counterproductive to their own careers, interests and potential constituents, simply labelling them as victims or sneaky or self-centred seems to be too weak of an analysis as well. Cain is a self-conscious agent, and Cain has had a big career already. This was also the case for Clarence Thomas – these aren’t (mere?) cases of “white manipulation” or “Uncle Tom-ish” behaviour (and, obviously, these are tropes that have another whole set of problems and questions that come with them). Cain and Thomas seem to simply mirror the fact that one discrimination against you does not rule out discriminatory behaviour against others. The fact that Thomas as well as Cain call the consequences of their potential sexual harassment towards women an act of “lynching” shows a rather infuriating disconnect to actual history, Black solidarity and the not less important connection between racism against Black women and the historical stereotype of the “Jezebel”, traditionally used against Black women by white rapists. This is also the point where people get decidedly unexcited about sexual harassment towards Black women, whereas “white women’s tears” and fears and reproaches seem to be the “actual” crimes that have to be taken seriously (although not as serious as to actually lead to any consequences – rape culture and all, we’ve heard about it).
So, the “lynching” reproach was certainly horrid in Anita Hill’s case – I do not know the race of the three women who have accused Cain. In any case, sexism does not magically vanish with skin colour, although it might take on different forms and contexts. Sexually harassing people is not OK (and really? Why does one actually have to say this?). Sexually harassing people is easily preventable (just don’t do it). Having to pay $35,000 to make a charge go away does not scream “innocence.” And blaming “the liberal news media” and your skin colour, a subject that you have carefully avoided to not lose the votes of any scared old white people, does not make the charges of sexual harassment any less valid. So the choices in the Republican Party are a potential women molester or a “businesses are people”-yelling guy? Sounds wonderful.