A crude racial calculus has been a part of our national discourse for centuries. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter is America's finest practitioner of it.
"Our blacks are so much better than their blacks," she told Fox News' Sean Hannity in a display of pure racial taxonomy we haven't seen since the 19th century.
"To become a black Republican, you don't just roll into it," Ms. Coulter said. "You're not going with the flow. You have fought against probably your family members, probably your neighbors, you have thought everything out and that's why we have very impressive blacks in our party."
Asked on "The Joy Behar Show" to defend her comments, Ms. Coulter differentiated between liberal black Democrats ("their blacks") and conservative black Republicans ("our blacks").
"I'm saying Google Maxine Waters, Cynthia McKinney, John Conyers, and then Google Allen West, Michael Steele or Herman Cain," she said, resisting the urge to approximate their skull circumference with her bony fingers like an old-fashioned phrenologist. "Ours are more impressive. There's no question about it."
When Ms. Coulter refers to "our blacks," she isn't talking about the so-called "Talented Tenth," the cadre of black intellectuals that W.E.B. Du Bois hoped would rise up to lead the majority of American blacks to the Promised Land via the power of a classical education. No, Ms. Coulter is praising those blacks in her party who have an amazing capacity to make white folks feel good about themselves despite hundreds of years of bad blood and history.
In the mind of many white conservatives like Ms. Coulter, there will always be a hierarchy of Negroes. At the top are "our blacks," who reject the notion that America suffers from any lingering effects of white supremacy and systemic racial injustice.
"Their blacks" are the 99 percent of us who refused to stick with the Republican Party after it was taken over by Dixiecrats and Southern defectors from the Democratic Party during the height of the civil rights struggle.
Like most blacks, I find myself standing in the field gazing in wonder at the party going on in the Big House on the hill. We hear all of the singing, dancing and "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" coming from the mansion, but it doesn't impress us enough to join in.
Still, we're amazed by the ability of the blacks on the inside to make so many white conservatives feel comfortable with them. "If you're still poor and unemployed barely one generation out of Jim Crow, then it is your fault," some of these ZaDDD negroes say with a straight face.
No one has perfected the art of communicating a non-threatening Old Black Man persona to white conservative crowds better than GOP presidential primary front-runner Herman Cain.
Mr. Cain made an appearance at the National Press Club of Washington this week where he was grilled about whether he settled sexual harassment charges with two employees in the 1990s. He was an incoherent mess.
After the news conference and at the request of the host, Mr. Cain broke into an a cappella version of "He Looked Beyond My Faults," the Dottie Rambo spiritual he's been singing at the end of his appearances lately:
"Amazing grace shall always be my song of praise / for it was grace that bought my liberty / I do not know just why He came to love me so / He looked beyond my faults and saw my need."
The folks gathered at the National Press Club ate it up. There's something about a black man singing a spiritual in the middle of his troubles that tugs at the hearts of white people, no matter how sophisticated they are. Even cynical reporters who had asked hostile questions just moments before stood and applauded.
An ABC News video of Mr. Cain singing the song in its entirety at a tea party rally in Waverly, Tenn., explains why he's so popular. Mr. Cain disappoints the crowd when telling them he won't be hanging around for pictures or autographs as promised because he's already late for another appearance. As consolation, he offers to leave them with a heartfelt rendition of the Dottie Rambo song.
The room took on the feeling of a spiritual revival as Mr. Cain's strong bass filled the hall. When he finished, the applause was thunderous. He easily secured every vote in the hall.
Mr. Cain figured out a long time ago that to get the maximum number of white folks on his side, he had to muster the moral energy of the civil rights movement minus its demand for change. He may not know much about foreign or domestic policy, but he's the non-judgmental "black friend" most white conservatives have been waiting for.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631.