Is the GOP Finally Ready to Tackle Its Race Problem in 2012?

In an election in which the name Donald Trump is tossed around as a "legitimate" (I use that word very loosely) candidate for president, nothing surprises me. Well almost nothing.

I will admit, however, to being somewhat surprised to hear who was declared the victor of the first GOP debate of the 2012 election season: Pizza mogul Herman Cain. Cain not only won, but according to a Fox News focus group, won decisively. This is noteworthy because he was one of the least known candidates at the beginning of the debate, with the least amount of support, but by debate's end participants in the focus group were practically falling all over themselves to sing his praises.

Did I mention that Cain is African-American?

This means that if Cain was to succeed in the GOP primary--and at the moment I realize that's still a big "if"--we would have the first ever showdown between two African-Americans for the nation's highest office. The history-making nature of this possibility aside, I think that if Cain runs a competitive race at all--even winning one or two primary states--it could be one of the best things to happen to the GOP, as well as voters of color, in a while.

A few short years ago two of the highest profile members of the GOP were African-Americans, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, both of whom served as Secretary of State, becoming the first black man and black woman to do so. And in case you missed it, they were both appointed by a Republican president. This fact was certainly not lost on some, including a younger generation of black voters. As I discussed in my first book Party Crashing, a growing number of post Civil Rights generation era black Americans began distancing themselves from the hyper-partisanship and knee-jerk loyalty to the Democratic Party displayed by our parents. In polling for the book (conducted in conjunction with Suffolk University's Political Research Center), we found that more than a third of young black voters ages 18 to 24 identified as registered independents, while 41% of total respondents ages 18 to 45 identified themselves as "Registered Democrat but politically independent."

My interviews with some of these voters were enlightening. One of them--a former intern for one of the nation's most powerful Democrats--pointed to the appointments of Rice and Powell as proof that Republicans were not the bogeymen her parents had made them out to be. That spurred her evolution from born-and-bred Democrat to registered Independent. Of course this was before the Obama-mania really took hold. Not of the Democratic Party, but of the GOP.

The fact that a poor, black guy, named Hussein beat the very embodiment of American patriarchal power--a rich, white, war veteran from a powerful family named McCain--appears to have shaken some corners of the GOP to its core. And in the midst of the earthquake, some of the racist relatives that appear to have been hidden away the last few years have come tumbling out of the closet.

Though George W. Bush is unlikely to go down in history as one of the great American Civil Rights presidents (especially due to his mishandling of Katrina and controversial opposition to some affirmative action programs), the GOP that has emerged in his wake in the age of Obama, has practically made him look like the second coming of LBJ by comparison. While he wanted to find a compromise solution on the issue of illegal immigration, supporting the controversial Arizona law is now a prerequisite for any GOP-er looking to be a serious contender in 2012. While he appointed African-Americans to key positions within his administration--and allowed them to maximize the power their positions entailed for good and bad--Michael Steele became GOP Chair and was then forced to kowtow to the Rush Limbaughs of the party and infamously acknowledge that Limbaugh and his ilk were the ones with the true power.

And on top of it all, the number of GOP-ers with leadership positions within the party who have made blatantly racist jokes, comments, asides and references about the president and his family (or simply those of us who happen to share a skin color with the Obamas) has become so common that at this point the offenses have to be truly egregious to generate extensive media coverage. (I'm looking at you, Marilyn Davenport.) (Click here to see a list of some of the most racist moments from members of the GOP in the Obama era.) The race-baiting has become so common and cavalier that when Donald Trump insinuated the president was an affirmative action baby it was hard to spend any real energy getting outraged because the comment--though clearly dripping with racial under- and overtones--was tame compared to others. (I was halfway tempted to tweet "Step up your game Trump. Marilyn Davenport is running racist circles around you.")

Jokes aside, these embarrassingly offensive moments have not only been disappointing for the GOP heading into 2012, but disappointing for voters of color. Many of us hoped that unlike our parents, who had to choose between voting for a segregationist and "the other guy," we wouldn't be reduced to such choices at the ballot box. But, every time yet another GOP-er sends around yet another "hysterical" Obama watermelon or monkey joke, the realization sets in that maybe our choices aren't so different from our parents' after all.

Then again if Herman Cain can actually get some traction in a GOP primary, then maybe those of us who fear that the GOP of 2011 is not so different from the GOP of 1961, will be proved wrong.

But just like the likelihood of Donald Trump being elected president of anything besides his own fan club, that remains a big "if."

This piece originally appeared on for which Goff is a Contributing Editor.