We are familiar with the outlines of the story by now: a black man who, after being born to poverty in Georgia, ascends to political prominence by dint of his talent and work ethic. His biography becomes a first-person testament to the virtues of self-reliance, faith, and the still vast possibilities of this nation. His ascent troubles liberals and many African Americans but among conservatives his future is virtually limitless. That is, until charges of sexual harassment arise and he is forced into the quagmires of race and gender which had been so studiously avoided up to that point.
As we recognize the twentieth anniversary of the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings, Herman Cain’s presidential campaign has to be hoping that we are not on the cusp of seeing history paraphrase itself. The unlikely and compelling emergence of Herman Cain as a presidential frontrunner has been marked by a brand of verbal brusqueness that has endeared him to a segment of the GOP base. Immigration issues? We need an electrified fence with an alligator moat. Massive unemployment? It’s your own fault. You’re a black democrat? You’ve been brainwashed. There is an old saw about people mistaking kindness for weakness; this season Herman Cain has improbably parlayed meanness into political strength.
But if there is any substance to the charges in Politico’s expose, Cain will need more than a broad smile and a Teflon chip on his shoulder. When confronted with his accuser’s words twenty years ago, Clarence Thomas fell back upon the most cynical recasting of Southern history imaginable: the high-tech lynching. In painting a legal inquiry in tones of inhuman vigilantism, Thomas made Kevlar of history, cloaked himself in it, and gained a seat on the Supreme Court. Between 1882 and 1930, some 458 people were lynched in Thomas’s home state of Georgia. None of them were given a Senate vote or a lifetime job afterward. After years of denying the significance of racism, Thomas ultimately made its legacy his greatest and most cynical ally.
In the hours since this story broke, Cain’s campaign has said nothing that explosive—though his reference to “elites” and the media in his press release suggest tones of martyrdom may yet emerge—but as my friend Farai Chideya pointed out, the term “high tech lynching” has experienced a nearly 900 percent increase in usage over the weekend.
I suspect that term will experience a surge this week as random and unlikely as that of Herman Cain. But the hope is that his campaign is wise enough to avoid orchestrating another festival of violence, one in which the truest victim is history itself.
William Jelani Cobb is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Rutgers University and author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress. Follow him on Twitter @Jelani9.