10/04/2011 08:35 am ET Updated Dec 04, 2011

Herman Cain's (and the GOP's) Confusion About Black Voters

Herman Cain recently gave voice to a tired narrative Republicans offer to explain the Grand Old Party's pathetic performance with Black voters that is as absurd as the notion that he will win his party's presidential nomination. Mr. Cain stated in an interview on CNN's Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer that "many African Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view." This is a decades-old canard that does not hold up to scrutiny and, worse, shows that Republicans, including Mr. Cain, do not understand Black political behavior.

I interviewed dozens of Black Republican activists when researching my book Republicans and the Black Vote and a majority of them cited some form of the notion that Black people were "brainwashed," "forced," or otherwise "tricked" into not voting Republican. It goes something like this: Black liberals like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, among others, have some mystical, magical mind-control over Black people. These untrustworthy leaders have used their powers for evil, convincing Black people that conservative public policy preferences would hurt Black interests. They, through their white liberal patrons, keep their thumbs on Black voters to keep them beholden to the Democrats.

This, of course, ignores decades of conservative political symbols and policies that have demonized African Americans, undermined Black progress, and repressed Black political participation. It ignores the hostility in some corners of today's Republican Party toward African Americans. From dismantling federal civil rights enforcement to opposing or vetoing civil rights legislation and from racist incarceration policies to "welfare queens" and from economic policies that encourage the movement overseas of blue collar jobs to opposing increases in the minimum wage, conservatives have almost always been on the other side of the street from Black people. This is not brainwashing. It is an honest assessment of an ideology, practiced by a political party, that is antithetical to the interests of most African Americans.

Black voters are were they have always been: center, center-left. They were with the Republicans when the GOP fought for their interests. They stayed where they were and watched the GOP move away from its long held policy positions. African Americans have been far from brainwashed about the Republicans and, more specifically, conservative ideology. If anything, Black voters have been remarkably consistent: As both parties have shifted positions, it is Black voters who have remained constant. If you give Black voters a reason to support you, Mr. Cain, then I am sure they will. Given where you stand now, however, I'm not optimistic you will get more than token support.

For too long, conservatives have blamed Black leaders for Republican failures with Black voters. Herman Cain's view suggests that looking inward is something the Republicans are unable, or unwilling, to do. As former U.S. Representative J.C. Watts told me, Republicans simply "don't get it" on race. And the notion of mind-control just doesn't wash.

Michael Fauntroy is author of "Republicans and the Black Vote" and associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. He blogs at