Recently Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon from Baltimore, who happens to be African American, has pulled to the front of the pack in polls for who will receive the nomination of the Republican Party for President of the United States. Whether or not Carson will be able to sustain his lead remains to be seen, but the fact that he is currently the front-runner for one of America’s two major political parties means that Africans and members of the African Diaspora will increasingly ask these questions:
Who is Ben Carson? Where does his Republican Party stand in relation to racial diversity in the United States? Why does Carson have so little support among African Americans?
Who is Ben Carson?
Americans tend to vote for candidates based on compelling narratives about their lives and how this re-enforces the American national identity as a land of fairness, a land of immigrants and a land where individuals are able to rise to their fullest potential. Barack Obama used the story of being the child of a foreign-born parent to great effect, Ben Carson seems to be promoting the story of having risen from the bottom in a land of opportunity.
Carson’s campaign wants voters to know that Carson “grew up poor in a single-parent household with bad grades and a terrible temper.” It is important for the Carson campaign to stress this narrative because it fits their message that racism in the United States is largely a thing of the past and that the way for African Americans to close wealth and income gaps, and gaps in schooling, is to work and study harder as individuals and to improve their moral behavior.
Some people might call Carson’s message on overcoming racial disparity in the United States “common sense” and practical wisdom; others may consider it to be an effort to trivialize ongoing institutional and systemic racism.
Why Does Carson Have Little Support Among African Americans?
In America the Beautiful, which is a book by Carson published in 2011, he described growing up in Detroit and Boston, “at the tail end of one of those dark periods in America’s history.” Carson wrote that “Slavery had long been abolished, but widespread racism remained,” and “the civil rights movement was on the verge of completely transforming the social landscape.” Carson added, “but such change often comes slowly.”
Carson described the moment when he first became aware of racism in the United States. He and his brother were children, playing in a park and Carson says he wandered off alone and ran into a group of white boys who started calling him racially derogatory names and threatened to drown him in the lake.
Carson believes that the United States is much different today, and that racism is no longer a significant problem. As is true for many White Americans, Carson saw the election of President Obama as evidence that racism has diminished as a factor in American life. In America the Beautiful Carson wrote, “The election of Barack Obama as the 1st black president in 2008 was a momentous occasion and signaled the fact that race was no longer a barrier to election to the highest office of the land.”
While most Black Americans would agree that the election of 2008 was a watershed moment in the struggle for an end to the ideology of White supremacy, they are more reluctant than Whites to believe that racism is no longer a significant factor in everyday American life. They point to criminal justice statistics that suggest that Black Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and nearly four times as likely to experience force during encounters with the police as White Americans for the same offenses and under similar circumstances. Moreover, they point to a militarized police force patrolling African American neighborhoods and arrests of Blacks for minor offenses that would merely generate a warning in other communities.
They also point to increased measures to make it more difficult for Black Americans to vote, which have escalated since the Supreme Court weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013. Above all, they point to continuing racial disparities in both schooling and employment in the United States. In schooling they point out that Black students attend schools with high concentrations of inexperienced teachers in contrast to their White counterparts.
In terms of employment, they note that Black unemployment is roughly twice as high as the rate of white unemployment no matter what level of educational attainment an African American has achieved. They also point out that African American youth unemployment, in real terms, is over 50%.
The message of Carson’s campaign is that all of this can be overcome by better individual behavior, and this resonates quite well with the story that many White Americans tell themselves. Carson defines policies that are designed to address ongoing racial disparity as being “special consideration” and says that Americans want to see Blacks succeed because it is a nation that loves to see the underdog emerge victorious.
Carson was quoted in the Washington Times in 2014 as saying, “Today, there are many young people from a variety of racial backgrounds who are severely deprived economically and could certainly benefit from the extension of a helping hand in education, employment and other endeavors.” He added, “The real question is this: Who should receive extra consideration from a nation that has a tradition of cheering for the underdog? I believe underdog status is not determined any longer by race. Rather, it is the circumstances of one’s life that should be considered.”
These statements may seem to suggest that Carson is aware of the need for social support for struggling Americans, and that his only caveat is that such support be racially-neutral. This would be mistaken, however, since Carson also supports cutting most government social programs and human services and relying instead on private charity to fill in the gaps that would be created. His statement that “extra consideration” should be given based not on race, but on “the circumstances of one’s life” must be seen as being an expression of his opposition to government-funded social programs in general rather than an indication that he would favor means-tested programs to replace programs designed to counter racial disparities.
What Does the Republican Party Stand for in Relation to African Americans?
Carson’s political party, the Republicans, was founded in the middle of 19th century. One of its strongest passions, at that time, was to abolish slavery, which was based on the ideology of White supremacy and exploitation of cheap labor. During most of that century people who were involved in movements for labor rights and an end to racial oppression tended to support the Republican Party, but that changed by the middle of the 20th century, when their competitors, the Democrats, began to support legislation to end racial discrimination and promote the right of workers to organize.
At that time many Democrats were White Southerners who were deeply committed to White supremacy. As Northern liberals in the Democratic Party began to win victories in changing the party’s official position on racial equality, those who supported White supremacy migrated to the Republican Party and the Republicans, hungry for more voters, gladly took them in.
In 1964 the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, a candidate who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ended racial segregation in public accommodations, to become president of the United States. Goldwater lost in a landslide, but the Goldwater campaign sent a clear message to both Black Americans and White supremacists about where the Republicans were headed.
In 1968 the Republicans stepped up their attempts to attract White voters in both the North and the South who opposed racial desegregation of schools, employment and neighborhoods.
This trend continued, and expanded to include fear and hostility toward undocumented non-White immigrants during the 1990s, and Muslims in the 21st century. As a result, the single most notable characteristic of the Republican Party today is its lack of racial and religious diversity. A study conducted by Gallup Polling service, in 2013, verified by other studies on political affiliation in America, illustrates the situation clearly:
89% of the Republican Party is composed of non-Hispanic Whites, 6% of Republicans are Hispanics, and only 2% of Republicans are Non-Hispanic Blacks.
The Democrats are far more inclusive, in contrast, with 60% of Democrats being Non-Hispanic Whites, 22% of Democrats are Non-Hispanic Blacks and 13% of Democrats are Hispanics. Moreover, in the past few presidential elections the Republican Party lost every single minority category, including Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Asians, and Jews. Ben Carson’s political party has increasingly become insular and self-segregated over the years. This is happening as the United States is becoming more and more diverse. Some see in this a pattern of reaction within the Republican Party against the changing demographics of America. Carson, as a racial conservative, provides the party with cover on positions that might otherwise be seen as being “racist”.
What Does Carson Mean for Africans, African Americans and the Diaspora?
It is impossible to know, at this point, how the Carson campaign will play out in the months ahead, but it is highly unlikely that the campaign will garner much support from African Americans unless it more directly addresses concerns facing Black American communities. The success of the Carson campaign, so far, has been based on making Americans feel good about themselves and their belief that their country is a land of opportunity, regardless of one’s race or economic class. Even when Carson talks about global issues all roads lead back to individual behavior according to him.
In terms of Africa and the Diaspora, Carson lacks foreign policy experience — or any experience whatsoever related to governing. His references to Africa, in public statements, have mostly been consistent with the narrative of his campaign that Americans should feel good about the progress the country has made toward racial equality and economic prosperity for even the poorest members of the workforce.
In America the Beautiful, Carson wrote, “Growing up I heard many complaints from those around me about poverty, but visiting such places as India, Egypt and Africa has provided me with a perspective on what poverty really is … many of those living in poverty in this country would be considered quite wealthy by poor people in other countries.”
He added, “Here in the United States there is not a caste system to determine one’s social status, so there are many opportunities for people to escape poverty without resorting to a life of crime. You are much more likely in this nation to be judged by your knowledge and the way you express yourself than you are by your pedigree.”
There is nothing unusual about an American politician who makes the American people feel good about themselves; that’s largely how elections are won. Carson’s problem with African Americans, however, may arise from the realization that his feel-good image and rhetoric is being used to reinforce the complacency of those who believe that there are no longer significant institutional and systemic racial hurdles in the United States that need to be tackled, and re-enforces the stereotype that problems facing Black Americans are due, almost entirely, to matters of individual behavior.
It is unclear whether or not he has any sense at all of what policies the United States should have that might affect Africans who are concerned about creating more opportunities for trade and nation-building, or about the growing militarization of the African continent.