Ben Carson has now overtaken Donald Trump in the national polls as the GOP front-runner.
As a black man, I’m not at all sure how I should feel about this.
On the one hand, he represents a party that has dedicated itself to opposing President Obama at every turn, mostly because the president is black. This gives me pause.
On the other hand, here’s another black man, one who – if the polls continue to hold – is poised to become the standard bearer of another major American party.
This should give me hope. It doesn’t, because he’s not qualified for the position.
Don’t get me wrong: the man is brilliant in the field of medicine. Ben Carson remains renowned as a one of the finest neurosurgeons in the world. But he is way too far out of his depth to be taken seriously as a political leader.
Shoudn’t Be A Serious Candidate
Consider the following gaffes.
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He’s compared health care reform to slavery.
He’s compared homosexuality to murder.
He suggests the Nazi regime was able to remain in power largely through disarming the German people.
The answer, in my view, is simple: he’s a token.
The Republican Party is the party of white folks: 89% of the GOP identifies as white. By serving as tokens, Carson and other black Republican candidates allow racist whites to continue to hide from their racism.
Of course, not all black Republicans are tokens. Consider the late Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. A two-term senator (1966-1978) and former Massachusetts attorney general, he received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1967, for “Outstanding Achievements for an African American.” He cosponsored the bill that would become the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and was the first Republican senator to call for President Nixon’s resignation. But that was a different GOP, one far more progressive than what we see today.
What? You wish to know about Tim Scott from South Carolina, the one black Republican in the United States Senate?
The one-term congressman replaced Tea Party favorite Jim DeMint in 2012, as the junior senator. Since then, he has sponsored no legislation of any import. Moreover, he has voted with Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, both Tea Party favorites, against bills designed to address violence against women, comprehensive immigration reform, the selection of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and the selection of Loretta Lynch as the first black female attorney general.
There were only four senators who received a higher conservative rating than Scott in the recently completed 113th Congress: Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah.
Suffice it to say that Ben Carson is more of a Tim Scott than an Edward Brooke.
By continuing to represent the GOP as a black man who is patently unqualified, his candidacy does more to perpetuate racism than undo it. His political incompetence is on public display for all to see.
It’s very much akin to a show in which black performers were complicit in their own degradation. And since blacks are almost never afforded the opportunity to be seen as individuals, the humiliation is often extended to blacks as a group.
For these reasons, I cannot rejoice in Carson’s candidacy. He was a famous surgeon, but he’s far more well-known as the bumbling black Republican candidate. The longer he’s a front-runner, the more he’ll set race relations back, far more so than President Obama, but for different reasons.
The president impedes racial progress because many white people believe that his election proves that race is no longer an issue; nothing more needs to be done. Or, they believe that since he succeeded, other black people must be slackers. If he continues to stumble, Carson’s bid for the presidency promises to reinforce the belief, among some whites, of black inferiority.
If Carson somehow becomes the GOP nominee, it’s not likely that many blacks will support him.
The simple fact is that conservatism alienates the vast majority of blacks, owing to its tendency to blame the victim and its refusal to recognize the continuing debilitating effects of racism. Even if one believes that his wealth, estimated at US$10 million, explains why Carson is a Republican, scholars have shown that racial considerations are generally more important than class when it comes to politics.
If Carson is to win, he must turn to his patrons: whites. But even if all 49% of whites who identify as Republicans voted for him, he would still fail to win because only 23% of the electorate identifies with the GOP. Like any other candidate, he’d need to siphon off enough support from the 39% of those who identify as independents to win the general election. However, since, by definition, independents are less partisan, and are, therefore, more pragmatic, this doesn’t appear at all likely in Carson’s case.
At the end of the day, the world-class surgeon is at the center of a demeaning dark comedy in which he stars the token black in the GOP circus. The black performers to whom I referred earlier had little choice: they had to feed their families. Carson, an affluent physician, has a choice.
As a black man, such tokenism offends my sensibilities because it returns us to a time during which some blacks sold out at the expense of the rest of us. You could call it a racialized “divide and conquer” strategy. It’s a stratagem from which we, as a community, have yet to recover.
About The Author
Christopher Parker, Associate Professor, Political Science, University of Washington. His first book, Fighting for Democracy: Black Veterans and the Struggle Against White Supremacy in the Postwar South (Princeton University Press, 2009), winner of the American Political Science Association's Ralph J. Bunche Award, takes a fresh approach to the civil rights movement by gauging the extent to which black veterans contributed to social change