Editor's note: Randall L. Kennedy is an author and the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University. He focuses his research on the intersection of racial conflict and legal institutions in American life.
(CNN) -- Herman Cain claims that brainwashing explains why so few blacks support conservative Republicans such as himself. He is wrong. The thinking, sentiments, and policy preferences he supports give good cause for rejecting him.
In his new campaign manifesto, "This is Herman Cain: My Journey to the White House," the candidate states repeatedly and without qualification that "Our Founding Fathers did their job ... a great job." He makes no mention of the blacks who fled George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson during the Revolutionary War in search of their freedom, or the Constitution's protection of slavery, or that the initial Constitution forbade Congress from prohibiting American participation in the international slave trade for 20 years and indeed made that provision unamendable.
Cain evinces no recognition of the Founding Fathers' role in erecting a cruel pigmentocracy that continues to poison virtually every aspect of American political, social and cultural life. This is not an abstruse or academic matter. The president nominates federal judges. An important theory of constitutional interpretation vying for ascendancy is originalism: the notion that the Constitution should be read as originally understood by its framers. Justice Clarence Thomas is the most militant originalist on the Supreme Court. A President Cain would seek to fill the federal judiciary with more Clarence Thomases -- a prospect that most blacks rightly view with dread.
Asked about his impressions of the Occupy Wall Street dissidents, Cain declared: "Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself " -- a statement that overlooks the desperation with which millions, a disproportionate number of whom are black, strive to stave off impoverishment and unemployment. Later, when Cain perceived the impolitic character of his comment, he tried to minimize it, asserting that he was only referring to the protesters and not to the impoverished or unemployed in general. That attempt at damage control rings false, however, especially in light of his further comment: "It is not a person's fault if they succeeded, it is a person's fault if they failed."
Largely located on the lower rungs of the American socioeconomic ladder, most black Americans appreciate sources of opportunity and power that Cain despises: unions, governmental support for the needy, a robust, government-supported full-employment policy, the public provision of health care. His worry, remarkably, is that America is too egalitarian. His signature policy -- the 9-9-9 tax reform proposal -- would institute a regressive consumption tax nationally and starve Social Security and Medicare. It would redistribute income upward. No wonder blacks overwhelmingly repudiate him and his tea party allies.
Cain also recently declared: "I don't believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way." If there were any doubts before that he was bereft of the knowledge and sensibility required of a significant political figure, much less president, then this egregious statement should remove them.
A library full of careful, rigorous studies shows clearly that invidious racial discrimination and, perhaps even more consequentially, the perpetuation of disabilities inflicted by racial mistreatment in the past hurt blacks and other people of color in a broad array of domains: from commercial transactions like buying a car or purchasing a home, to dealing with police, to electoral politics, to wellness and life expectancy.
Race still matters. Not only are people of color discriminated against with frequency. Not only are the accumulated burdens of past discrimination permitted to prey upon new generations even in the absence of racial malevolence (complacency is deadly too). But studies also show that the darker you are, the more likely you are to face wrongful indifference or cruel mistreatment. (Take a peek at the illuminating article by Jennifer Hochschild and Vesla Weaver, "The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order," in the December 2007 edition of Social Forces.)
Of course, there has been remarkable, positive change in American racial attitudes. But recall the miserable baseline against which we mark that progress. In 1958, the Gallup Organization asked whether Americans would be willing to vote for a qualified black presidential candidate nominated by their own party. Three in five white Americans answered "no."
The election of Barack Obama is a vivid illustration of the extent to which racial attitudes have evolved. But neither Obama's residency in the White House, nor Herman Cain's current surge, nor the emergence of an African-American affluent class negates the fact that fresh racism and the unhealed wounds of racial injuries inflicted in the past give rise to conditions, observable everywhere, that dishonor the best of American ideals. It is because of Herman Cain's denial of these realities that most blacks will continue, understandably, to view him as unfit for high political office.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Randall Kennedy.