There's a hot new meme making its way around the internet, but this one is far less innocent and cuddly than Keyboard Cat and Hipster Ariel—much less funny, too. This one's a political meme, and it blends Herman Cain antipathy with old-fashioned racism. Apparently, it's now en vogue to call Cain, the embattled GOP candidate for president, an "Uncle Tom." Get it? He's bad at being black!
Do a quick Twitter search for "Uncle Tom Cain" and you'll see for yourself. CNN contributor Roland Martin is doing it. As is former CNN host D.L. Hughley. Even white comedian Moshe Kasher has gotten in on the laughs, prompting his Twitter followers to explicitly call Cain racial slurs (but it's OK if it's a Twain reference).
It's pretty simple to parse: Cain is black and he's a conservative, and to many people that makes him an Uncle Tom (or, in deference to anyone not up on their Stowe, a black person who's especially subservient to whites). It's not possible for Cain to simply have developed views that run counter to a liberal's, he's also got to be self-loathing in some insidious way. So self-loathing, in fact, that he's out to betray the African-American community while quietly and loyally serving whites. Looked at in that light, it's easy to hate Cain. But try considering him from a different angle.
Cain is a self-made man. Born poor in Jim Crow Tennessee, he was able to put himself through college and into the upper echelons of corporate America as CEO of the National Restaurant Association. His story is almost literally the American dream Republicans crow about before pooh-poohing social welfare programs. "Real Americans," they say, "can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed without government handouts." Is it any wonder that rags-to-riches Cain finds that narrative attractive?
Beyond that, Cain is a multimillionaire, commanding a net worth estimated to be between $2 and $6 million. As the GOP has made it its business to cut taxes for America's richest citizens, is it surprising that Cain, black or not, would want to support the party that's pledged time and again to keep him as rich as possible? True, some Republican policies are overtly anti-black, but it shouldn't be incumbent upon every black person to combat those policies. Perhaps having his income taxed at a low rate is more important to Cain than providing affordable health care to low-income African-American families. You might disagree with his priorities, but that doesn't make Cain a bad black person. Having monetary self-interest and being afflicted by self-loathing are very different, and that sort of self-interest is to be expected from a professional capitalist.
In 2008, when Pat Buchanan said Colin Powell endorsed then-candidate Barack Obama out of black loyalty, people were rightly outraged. It's stupid and offensive to suggest that blacks, too primitive to figure out the complexities of politics, revert to just voting for whatever black person is on the ballot. Ironically, calling Cain an Uncle Tom is wrong for the same reason. When you call Cain a race traitor, what you're tacitly saying is that blacks are a monolithic bloc, and that this person who's stepped out of the bloc is so crazy as to hate himself and "his people." Both Buchanan and the people calling Cain an Uncle Tom presume blacks are all the same, that they all stick together—or should, at least.
Their numbers may be few, but some blacks are not Democrats. If you'd like to disagree with Cain because his 9-9-9 tax plan seems wacky or because of the sexual harassment charges being leveled against him, go right ahead. But to call him an Uncle Tom isn't only wrongheaded, it's also an attack on the fact that the black community is diverse and possessed of original thinkers.