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Herman Cain (1945–2020) knew what it was like to grow up poor and black in the United States. He grew up in an era where separate facilities for blacks and whites were a daily reminder of the status of black people.
Cain, a presidential candidate in 2012 and much more, died as the result of complications related to the COVID-19 virus that might have weakened his immune system that had been affected by stage-4 cancer treatments.
Neither his background nor his physical challenges stopped him from succeeding where others believed that they were a victim of a system that would never let them succeed.
Cain grew up in Georgia and graduated from Morehouse College with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He then earned a master’s degree in computer science at Purdue University, while also working full-time for the U.S. Department of the Navy. In 1977, he joined the Pillsbury Company where he later became vice president. During the 1980s, Cain’s success as a business executive at Burger King prompted Pillsbury to appoint him as chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, in which capacity he served from 1986 to 1996.
Cain’s mother cleaned and did domestic work. His father was raised on a farm and worked as a barber and janitor. He was also employed as a chauffeur for Robert W. Woodruff, the president of The Coca-Cola Company. Herman also worked for The Coca Cola Company as a computer systems analyst. This tells us something about Mr. Cain’s character. He did not see himself as a victim as some might by protesting the unfairness of the system because his father was a chauffeur for a rich man. That wouldn’t stop him from becoming a valued addition to the multi-billion-dollar company.
Like many black families, the Cain family, as Herman tells it, was “poor but happy.” His mother taught him that “success was not a function of what you start out with materially, but what you start out with spiritually.” Her advice stuck with him for the rest of his life. God does not put limits on the principle of opportunity and hard work even if the system might be lopsided. Herman’s father was a great example for the work ethic he would inherit and follow his entire life. His father worked three jobs to provide for his family to ensure that his children would have a better life than he had.
There’s a great deal of unfairness and injustice in the world. How a person responds to reality makes the biggest difference. Unfortunately, there are many opportunists who take advantage of the poor by claiming that there’s no way up and out except by pursuing the avenue of victimhood. Booker T. Washington (1865–1915) warned of such people within the black community in his 1911 book My Larger Education. He described them as “problem profiteers”:
There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs – partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.
Washington could have had in view, although writing more than a hundred years ago, black people who railed against black conservatives like Herman Cain. Cain didn’t present himself as a victim, and this disturbed a lot of people who made their careers by claiming that being a victim of injustice meant that success was not possible. Cain lived at a time when there were “colored” water fountains, segregated schools and neighborhoods, and racial discrimination that few people today can imagine. If anyone had a right to play the victim card, it was Herman Cain. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. He stayed out of trouble, worked hard, and made something of himself and did not fall prey to those who claimed that the only way to prosper was by claiming to be a powerless victim to difficult and sometimes unjust circumstances.
Herman Cain’s life serves as a model what can be done even when there are roadblocks and even minefields on the path to success.