Herman Cain Decides Who's Black Enough — Or American Enough

June 30, 2011 3:49 pm ET — Kate Conway

Herman Cain

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, GOP presidential hopeful and former pizza magnate Herman Cain belittled President Obama's racial identity, suggesting that he is not a "real black man." From Cain's interview with the Times' Andrew Goldman (questions are bolded):

Before you announced your campaign, you said that the liberal establishment is scared that "a real black man might run against Barack Obama." Are you suggesting Obama isn't really black?

A real black man is not timid about making the right decisions, that's what I meant. Look, I'm not getting into this whole thing about President Obama. It is documented that his mother was white and his father was from Africa. If he wants to call himself black, fine. If he wants to call himself African-American, fine. I'm not going down this color road.

But you're saying he's not really a black man.

Not in terms of a strong black man that I'm identifying with. I identify with a strong black man like Martin Luther King Jr., or my dad, Luther Cain Jr., who didn't have a lot of formal education, but he had a Ph.D. in common sense.

It's not for anyone to say after whom Cain ought to model his racial identity, or any aspect of his identity. But Cain's answer casts aside the president on grounds that are more than purely personal.

To Cain, if Obama "wants to call himself black" or "wants to call himself African-American," it's "fine." With his language, Cain makes it clear that he thinks the president hasn't earned those labels, possibly because "his mother was white and his father was from Africa." There's no doubt that Obama's life has been very different from Cain's, but being like Cain is not an appropriate litmus test for the right to identify as a "real black man"; there is no more singularity to the African-American identity than there is to any other racial or cultural category.

We shouldn't really be surprised that Cain won't deign to lend the president those descriptors he's claimed for himself. Throughout his short campaign, he's has cast himself as an arbiter of otherness; to Cain, some people are not automatically entitled to their identities. American Muslims, for example, will have to prove to Cain that they're loyal to the Constitution, while other faiths — Catholics, Mormons — wouldn't need to go through his constitutional loyalty test.