Would Herman Cain Still Be a Contender If His Accusers Were Black?

11/21/2011 08:48 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012

Every campaign a candidate says something that he or she ends up regretting, usually because an opponent or critic manages to prove the statement wrong in some factual or philosophical way. But rarely does a candidate prove one of his own statements wrong in the extraordinary manner that Herman Cain has managed to do in recent weeks.

Six weeks ago Cain said, "I don't believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way." In the last month he's learned firsthand just how laughable that statement really is. To those who have decided that based on the previous sentence, this blog post is laughable -- I ask you to first consider two questions.

Question number 1: If Cain's Libya gaffe -- and without a doubt it was a doozy -- renders him unqualified and unelectable for the presidency, then how do we explain the election of George W. Bush? His foreign affairs pop quiz failure during the 2000 presidential campaign makes Cain's mishap look mild and yet somehow he didn't become campaign roadkill. (Click here to see a list of some of the most embarrassing campaign flubs.)

Question number 2: What if Cain's sexual harassment accusers were black? (Let the eye rolls, hate mail and angry comments commence.)

As I mentioned on MSNBC's The Dylan Ratigan Show, shortly after the Herman Cain harassment story broke, the first question I asked a fellow writer is, "Do we know the race of the accusers?" I asked not because I care, but because I knew that some voters would -- namely many of the voters Mr. Cain needed to win a GOP primary. How do we know that some of them care? A 2010 Pew Research poll found that while nearly 85% of millenials of all races support interracial marriage, only 52% of white Baby Boomers do and only 36% of whites over age 65 do. Pew data also shows the average age of registered Republicans rising to 48 and the party's greatest bloc of support remaining overwhelmingly white and in the South. This means that the voters least likely to approve of sexual contact between members of different races are the very voters Cain's political survival has depended on. Therefore it was a given that his survival would become tougher if the number of attractive white women accusing him of not so attractive behavior increased.

What's ironic is that despite his earlier declaration that racism doesn't hold any of us back in any meaningful way, Cain later asserted that being a black conservative played a role in the allegations against him -- specifically making him an attractive target of both liberals and the media. He was at least partially right.

The fact that Cain is black and his accusers (so far) are reasonably attractive blondes did impact coverage of this story regardless of whether we in the media wish to acknowledge it. Though we don't like to admit it there are countless factors that determine which stories we cover and how we cover them, including factors that should not, such as race. The disproportionate coverage media outlets extend to cases of attractive white women who go missing in comparison to the coverage extended to missing minorities, is so well documented that it enjoys a permanent catchphrase among media critics: "Missing White Woman Syndrome." (Fingers crossed I don't go missing anytime soon because the odds are not in my favor in terms of coverage.) When it comes to allegations of sexual impropriety the same calculations that lead some reporters, producers, and editors to determine that a missing poor, overweight African-American woman may not be as newsworthy as a missing attractive, wealthy white woman can also come into play.

So what does this mean for Herman Cain? For starters, as long as his accusers were white, reasonably attractive and not completely incoherent, they were going to be extended a measure of coverage -- and credibility -- they may not otherwise. As such, they, unfairly or not, saddled Cain with the very albatross he has tried desperately to avoid. Herman Cain spent a lifetime defying racial stereotypes, both professionally and politically. Now he has cartoonishly morphed into the embodiment of one of America's most unflattering, yet enduring, racial stereotypes: that of the black man that despite seeming to have it all, still sexually wants a white woman more than anything.

Though his supporters were quick to hearken back to Clarence Thomas as a model for how a black conservative could survive similar allegations, they seemed to forget one key fact: Anita Hill, Thomas's accuser, is black. This fact still matters, even 20 years later, and if you are a black man running in a GOP primary the race of your accuser matters even more.

Don't get me wrong. When it's all said and done Cain's candidacy will ultimately have been done in by his own hand; his poor early response to the harassment crisis that engulfed his campaign, his bumbling response to the question on Libya. But that doesn't change the fact that the bar has always been set higher for African-Americans (apologies Mr. Cain. I know you hate that term) seeking to break barriers, with less room for errors. There is not a black person on the planet that believes President Obama could survive an impeachment scandal like President Clinton did. Just as we all accept the fact that no black candidate as inarticulate as President George W. Bush would have ever been considered a viable contender.

At the end of the day I guess Mr. Cain and I don't disagree all that much. He believes that race may have played some role in his demise, as do I. I guess the only real difference between us, is I always knew it was a possibility that his race could hold him back in some meaningful way. But it took a losing campaign, and abandonment by his fellow conservatives to teach Mr. Cain that lesson.

Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor for where this piece originally appeared. Check out her website here.

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