Herman Cain has faced quite a bit of criticism this week, but he thinks he knows what’s behind it: racism.

It’s not just the Republican candidate, either. Leading conservative media personalities, including Rush Limbaugh, have said racism is driving the criticism towards Cain the past few days. Even a U.S. Senator, Mike Lee (R) of Utah, raised the specter of a “racially-motivated attack” against the presidential hopeful.

Jamil Smith noted earlier, “I thought the right didn’t like when people of color blame anything on racism.” I thought so, too.

If the right wants to defend Cain, fine, but to casually throw around accusations of racism is cheap and offensive.

I don’t often agree with Jennifer Rubin, but her response to this line of argument generally rings true.

This is reprehensible, the sort of racial inflammation that, when practiced by the left, infuriates conservatives. Who is he accusing of racism — the Politico reporters? The women who made the claims in the 1990s? The media for covering allegations that he admitted were true (e.g., his employer settled at least one sexual harassment claim)?

Cain and his defenders, like actors in a theatrical tragedy, are falling prey to the very evil they labored against: the propensity to assign political identity by race and to invoke race to shield one from personal responsibility.

I’m not even sure what it is, exactly, that is supposed to be racist. The fact that Cain was accused of sexual harassment? We already know that’s true; Cain has acknowledged the accusations. The fact that Cain has repeatedly changed his story? That’s not his critics’ fault, and it has nothing to do with race.

Where, specifically, is this alleged racism? Can anyone in the Cain campaign or on the right point to a single instance in which he’s faced a racially-motivated attack?

Or is this more likely little more than a pathetic ploy? An African-American candidate is dealing with legitimate controversies, so the way to shut down discussion is to say those with questions must necessarily be racists.

I can only imagine the apoplexy if President Obama and his backers were to reflexively accuse any and all detractors of being bigots every time he faced criticism.

Even for the right, this is contemptible. If Cain, Limbaugh, Lee, and their cohorts were still capable of feeling shame, now would be a good time for some.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.