As the allegations of sexual harassment built against Herman Cain this month, Cain’s supporters and the press have quickly invoked race as a part of the discussion in Cain’s presidential campaign. After the press aired the initial allegations of harassment, Cain’s supporters began to echo the “high tech lynching” terminology of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, when Anita Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her. While the left contends that this is not high-tech lynching but rather simple reporting about the facts of Cain’s presidential qualifications, Cain’s supporters are openly discussing race—Cain, for example, has argued that “blacks have been ‘brainwashed’ into voting for Democrats in large numbers.” The contrast between the two sides on the campaign trail is of interest: during the last election, Barack Obama situated a campaign in a race-blind and post-racial America, while Herman Cain now wants a conversation about race and is not afraid to bring it up.
Obama’s election signaled to many that society had overcome its problems with racial discrimination, some even contending that the election represented a new “post-civil rights era.” Democrats have recently relied on this notion and seem reluctant to expose themselves to the controversies that inevitably stem from politicizing race. But perhaps the myth of the colorblind America is very real. As some argue, this strategy may be harmful. The left’s silence on race allows us to ignore the persistent legacies of institutional discrimination. In prior decades, policy changes in all areas, from employment and poverty to education and housing attempted to remind us how much work society had to do to unravel hundreds of years of history. But policy issues are now less frequently discussed in the context of race but more in socioeconomic terms or as individual and fiscal responsibility. The last few decades have seen a reframing of race from the left.
Similarly, the right has reframed racial discussions in ways that may distort race and that are self-serving for politics. The message is no longer government fixes versus individual responsibility, but rather that government handouts subliminally tell minorities that we don’t believe in their abilities and that society engages in high-tech lynching. By framing politics in this way, Cain attempts to draw voters with “conservative positions on gun rights, abortion and gay marriage, as well as disdain for tax increases.” A Fox commentator mentioned on air last month that Herman Cain might be the first real black president, suggesting that Obama is “not black enough” because of his mixed heritage. Regardless of which political side might be right about race, it matters more that our political discussions don’t distort or cloud racial discussions in the political process. We should question whether it is helpful to invoke notions of a race-blind society, the authentic blackness of our presidential candidates, or high-tech lynching, and whether this political rhetoric helps us solve real inequalities and existing discrimination.
The messaging in Herman Cain’s campaign has also distorted the allegations of sexual harassment. The allegations unveiled during Thomas’s confirmation hearings led to a broader examination of sexual discrimination in the workforce. On the other hand, Cain’s recent events undermine the stories of the female accusers, as the controversy focuses more on the legitimacy of each side, reputation, and finger pointing. This framing of women’s issues suppresses the voices of the female accusers, making their charges and the women themselves sound frivolous. Cain called Sharon Bialek, one of his accusers, a troubled woman and accused the Democratic machine for encouraging her to come forward. The Cain campaign, which exposed Bilek’s prior lawsuits and bankruptcies, defended its behavior by arguing that she brought it upon herself: “Ms. Sharon Bialek has placed herself in the public spotlight through making patently false allegations against Herman Cain, it is only fair to compare her track record alongside Mr. Cain’s.” Cain’s attorney, Lin Wood, argued that Cain is the victim and warned potential accusers that they will go through “intense scrutiny” if they bring their claims forward. And a Youtube video shows Cain joking about whether Anita Hill will endorse his campaign. As a result, there is no space to address the core issue of sexual harassment and no work is being done to prevent these incidents in the future.
We have little to gain with this response to sexual harassment. Regardless of which side is right, whether Democrats or Republicans, or Cain or the women who came forward, what we need most is an open and honest discussion about race and sexual harassment, rather than clouding these issues in a way that best suits each side’s political goals.