Dr. Ben Carson and I apparently differ is in our understanding of the insidious long-term effects of institutionalized and societal racism and how those effects need to be addressed.
The day I became aware of Dr. Benjamin Carson’s National Prayer Breakfast speech in February 2014, I was dumbfounded.
As the President of the United States sat two chairs away, instead of delivering a speech that was billed as his account of how Jesus Christ was his ultimate role model, Carson, a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon and blossoming politico, launched into a 25-minute assault on many of the policies initiated by President Obama. The Johns Hopkins surgical star also offered his own theories about issues like the national debt, taxation, deficits and healthcare, which were all opposite positions of the President’s.
Was this the same Dr. Ben Carson who struggled through his young life in a Detroit ghetto? The same Dr. Carson whose mother was functionally illiterate and worked three jobs at a time to provide for her two young boys? In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have expected such a boldly disrespectful move from this man, someone many on the political right are now embracing as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
My mind wandered back a decade or more when I had the honor and pleasure of seeing Carson deliver the keynote speech at one of the endless stream of gala fundraisers I was expected to attend in my position as Director of Community Relations in my corporation. His star in the medical world was rising rapidly then, thanks to his fascinating work in neurosurgery, especially his efforts to separate hopelessly conjoined twins.
His soft-spoken delivery of immensely hearable ideas about integrity, hard work and dedication earned him a rock-star-level standing ovation, and I was among the first on my feet. The swell of pride in my chest felt awfully close to the sensation I’d get when my son hit a grand slam homer on the diamond. Look at him, I thought. Look at how much this bad-tempered, under-achieving little black kid has grown to contribute, not just to African-American society, but to the worldwide community of people.
So, now that this dark-skinned wunderkind has popped up on the political scene on what most black people and many white people would describe as “the wrong side of the issues,” what are we to make of him? How could he sell himself out like that?
Let me be perfectly clear. I do not understand how he or Michael Steele or Juan Williams or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or Pizza Man Herman Cain justify their politics to themselves. When the rubber met the road in my own journey through life, and I had to choose a team to cheer for, there was never a day that I considered myself a candidate for Republicanism. But I do have some ideas about how someone like Dr. Ben Carson got there.
Carson’s mother was one of those diamonds in the rough. Despite her third-grade education, Mrs. Carson was a woman who believed in raising her kids, rather than being their friend. Because she was determined to raise good citizens, even in the midst of the furor of the 1960s, she insisted that the obstreperous young Ben complete his homework before playing outside. She forced him and his older brother to read two library books each week and submit to her a written report that she could barely read herself. Along about the fifth grade, young Ben found himself actually enjoying the books he was reading and he began reading as much as he could get his hands on.
So Mama Carson, through her strict adherence to priorities she set for her boys, made a proverbial silk purse out of a sow’s ear when it came to Ben’s underachieving. But, according to various stories of his childhood, even as he achieved his way to the heights of a scientific career, Ben still struggled with an anger that bubbled just under the surface.
According to Biography.com:
“Despite his academic successes, Ben Carson still had a raging temper that translated into violent behavior. One time he tried to hit is mother with a hammer because she disagreed with his choice of clothes. Another time, he inflicted a major head injury on a classmate in a dispute over a locker. In a final incident, Ben nearly stabbed to death a friend after arguing over a choice of radio stations. The only thing that prevented a tragic occurrence was the knife blade broke on the friend’s belt buckle. Not knowing the extent of his friend’s injury, Ben ran home and locked himself in the bathroom with a Bible.
Terrified by his own actions, he started praying, asking God to help him find a way to deal with his temper. He found salvation in the book of Proverbs in a passage that went, “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.”
It was his faith, also instilled by his mother, which eventually led Carson to choose the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. This denomination of Christianity believes that Saturday (the Sabbath) is a holy day of worship and that there is an impending second-coming of Christ. And it is his religion that has led Ben Carson to believe in the exceptionalism of the United States as a nation.
From the Christian Broadcasting Network 700 Club website:
“Dr. Carson believes as a nation, America has been favored by God because we have acknowledged Him. The forefathers of our nation were clearly guided by Sovereign leadership when they knelt and prayed for wisdom at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Together they stood up and assembled a seventeen page document known as the Constitution of the United States of America. Our nation was founded on principles revealed to us in the Bible by a righteous and just God. These teachings began in the home and continued at school. In early public schools reading from the Bible was not only common, it was expected.”
It is clear to me that Carson is a philosophical conservative. He believes in self-reliance and he has demonstrated it. He believes in the “Christian fundamentals” that allegedly underlie the motives of the Founding Fathers as they constructed the American Constitution. His religion, Seventh-Day Adventism, values freedom as a core tenet of their faith. He’s a genuine pull-yourself-up-by-your-jockstraps-or-bra-straps kind of guy.
It’s easy to be self-reliant when you earn a fabulous wage. We don’t have to see Carson’s pay stubs to know that he’s done well as a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income of a neurosurgeon is upwards of $200,000. Load in the benefits and take into account Carson’s high profile, and I would bet that his salary easily tops $300,000 a year. In addition, according to Forbes Magazine, Carson is a director on the boards of Costco and Kellogg. They report Dr. Carson’s total compensation (cash and stock awards) as $221,509 and $229,024, respectively.
Not exactly part of Mitt Romney’s infamous 47%, is he?
When I first started earning what my neighbors would have considered “real money” in my corporate job, I started seeing things like taxes and government programs a lot differently. I wasn’t thrilled with the advent of affirmative action once I understood what it was designed to do. In my youthful mind, I had overcome all the strikes against me – and there were many – and had succeeded. Why shouldn’t everybody else?
I had worked very hard to even be considered eligible for my job. I knew I had to continue to keep the focus of the white management on my achievements and off my skin color, which meant I needed to work harder and achieve more, just to stay competitive with my colleagues. And while I never rose to the level of income Dr. Carson has, I did surpass the magical $100,000 annual salary, which, at the time, made me “rich” among the average members of the black community.
So why have I never been a Republican, even after I fell in love with and married one? What’s the difference between me and Ben Carson?
We have the identical work ethic.
We have the same Christian ethic, albeit I have discarded the religiosity of that ethic.
We have both been called sellouts by other members of the black community.
The difference seems to me to be the way in which we view those among us who did not receive the gifts Carson and I were given. I believe that the racist foundation of the American society has hog-tied a certain segment of the black population into a persistent generational proliferation of people who are not born with a clean slate, and who cannot even reach the playing field. I believe that only some kind of draconian intervention will ever come close to obliterating that negative baggage that a black infant in the inner cities of America drags along with him when he takes his first breath.
Whereas, at one time during my journey I believed that everybody had the same chance at success as I did, I no longer believe that. For me, my choice of political ideology has been a matter of priorities. While I understand how and why a person of Dr. Carson’s achievements could prioritize fiscal issues above social ones, I cannot.
There are many issues, especially when it comes to economics and fiscal policy, about which I tend to agree more with Republicans than I do Democrats. I think we should have a balanced budget. I think we should not spend more money than we bring in revenues. I think we need to weed out the frauds who milk government programs inappropriately. I think we should force government employees to work, and not exhibit the slacker attitudes many of them do. If all of those thoughts make me a fiscal conservative, so be it.
But where Dr. Carson and I apparently differ is in our understanding of the insidious long-term effects of institutionalized and societal racism and how those effects need to be addressed. Is he a sellout? I don’t think so, any more than I consider myself one. He has earned his fame and fortune, and while I’m sure he had to negotiate the racist waters even in the medical profession and sometimes compromise his personal principles, his accolades are truly the fruits of his own labors.
What I do think, though, is that Carson’s priorities are screwed up.
Contributor Lezlie Bishop is a retired corporate public relations director, who now writes mostly for fun and catharsis. She grew up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1950s and 60s, a woman of mixed heritage living in a tumultuous time for people of color. Lezlie’s large collection of blog posts, many autobiographical, can be found at her personal blog at linthesoutheast.blogspot.com.