Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon turned Republican presidential candidate, is emerging from political obscurity. And part of his strategy is to vocally and consistently speak out against the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Carson, the only African-American in the Republican field, is proving that aligning himself against Black antiracism activists has made him more popular among the GOP base, providing the pathway to more votes.
A new CNN poll of Iowa voters has Carson in second place at 14 percent among the sprawling field of Republican contestants, immediately behind Donald Trump with 22 percent. Further, a RealClearPolitics average of five polls has Carson tied with Marco Rubio for fourth place, behind Trump, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker among the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls.
The author of the book Gifted Hands, with his story of moving out of a childhood of poverty to become a preeminent doctor, has inspired people in the Black community over the years. Now, his political stance—of dismissing discussions of racial issues as a distraction, blaming Black people for their own problems, and eschewing the very social programs that helped lift him out of poverty—places him at odds with the vast majority of Black people. This comes at a time when Black voters are concerned about racial injustice, systemic inequality and discriminatory policies, and a new Jim Crow system that brutalizes, murders and disappears Black bodies.
Carson accused #BlackLivesMatter of creating strife, underscoring the line a Black conservative must toe in the Republican party.
“Of course Black lives matter,” Carson said following a meeting with local politicians and business leaders in Harlem. “But what I feel instead of people pointing fingers at each other and just creating strife, what we need to be talking about is how do we solve problems in the Black community. Of murder, essentially.”
Dr. Carson attributes Black poverty, single parent families and welfare dependency to a loss of values. His answer to dealing with homicide as the leading cause of death for young Black men is a return to “family and faith,” which he said were “the values and principles that got Black people through slavery and segregation and Jim Crowism.” In addition, he places the blame for racial inequality on the Democrats and the “Lyndon Johnson philosophy” of promising Black people things in exchange for votes.
Writing for The Fix in the Washington Post, Janell Ross points out that while Republicans love Ben Carson and his views on race, most people of color are taking a pass. Ross offers that the GOP base “devours” Carson’s personal message of someone who overcame poverty through determination, perseverance and morals, and did not rely on “a burdensome set of distracting worries and excuses about white America’s minimal-to-nonexistent racism.”
Ross says, “This view largely rejects the idea that social structures and institutions—the tax code, schools, health care, jobs, policing, transportation options and even food choices—have helped some Americans and stand in the way of others. As such, large-scale reforms or fraught discussions about matters like race are not only unhelpful but unnecessary and perhaps even unwise.”
And this view enjoys little support outside of a narrow base of white right-wing Republican voters, given recent surveys finding large majorities across races supporting social and legal reforms to guarantee racial equality.
Professor Leah Wright Rigueur of Harvard and author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican, suggested to The Guardian that while Carson’s self-reliance may resemble that of Booker T. Washington, the candidate is far more conservative than the Black men and women of that day. Further, Wright Rigueur theorized that Carson’s outreach in Harlem is designed to make him appear more authentically Black, and to appeal to moderate whites.
“It’s a way to make conservatism less scary and make it appealing to moderate conservative voters. The idea being ‘if we win some Black and Latino voters, great, but really this is to win moderate white voters’.”
The professor also suggested that while Carson’s “flexible” conservativism allows him to denounce the Confederate flag and take a hardline stance on matters such as immigration and abortion, neither party will be able to continue to skirt around racial issues.
As the #BlackLivesMatter movement forces the Democratic Party to a coming to Jesus moment by confronting white privilege and racism among progressives, liberals and moderates, Ben Carson shows that promoting white nationalism in blackface, and throwing the Black protest movement under the bus sells in the Republican Party.
Carson is recycling a Clarence Thomas, Horatio Alger bootstraps mythology of self-reliance that downplays racism and shuns government responsibility. Meanwhile, he blames the victims of racism for their plight, accuses activists of disrupting society because they dare to identify, illuminate and resist the sources of their oppression, and attempts to shut down all discussion of police racial violence by using the very real issue of Black homicide as a red herring.