“Nobody is starving on the streets (of America). We have always taken care of them. We have churches which actually are much better mechanisms for taking care of the poor because they are right there with them. This is one of the reasons we give tax breaks to churches…” Dr. Ben Carson – CPAC Speech 2013
In modern culture, an icon is a symbol – i.e., a name, face, picture or even a person readily recognized as having some well-known significance or embodying certain qualities. That face or person begins to represent something else of greater significance through literal or figurative meaning. With his speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast and his recent Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) speech, Carson has become the new black conservative darling. He’s a great pediatric surgeon but a terrible icon for the political collective.
Dr. Ben Carson has an incredibly compelling and motivational story. Born into poverty in Detroit in 1951 and raised by a single mother with a third-grade education, Carson became the first surgeon to separate conjoined twins and the youngest to head a surgical department. His focus, work ethic and commitment to excellence should be emulated by as many as possible.
One problem with Dr. Carson and others like him – e.g., Justice Clarence Thomas, Michael Steele, Wardell Connerly and Condoleezza Rice – is how they have lent their voices and their personal narratives to conservatives in ways that allow them to undermine the social safety net in America. The argument is that these individuals have overachieved in spite of the odds; therefore, the inability of the poor in America to rise into the middle class or beyond is due to personal failure, lack of drive, initiative, and dependence upon the system. Carson, Rice and Thomas made it; why can’t you?
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Another problem with their “realities” is their failure to recognize and/or admit how they benefitted from “the system” at some point in their struggle. For example, Connerly grew his business in part with assistance from the 8(a) Program. Justice Thomas was a beneficiary of affirmative action. I don’t know if Carson’s mother ever received any public assistance during his childhood, but if she did not I am certain some of his neighbors did. Is he ready to cast them all as lazy and totally dependent upon the government?
We love to hear stories about people overcoming great odds to achieve success. What is ignored when reciting the stories of the Carsons, Thomases, and Rices of the world is the depth of the chasm that lay between Africans in America and later the African-American community and white America. There have always been personal successes in the midst of the collective or group struggle. During the 18th century while hundreds of thousands and later millions of Africans in America were bound by the shackles of slavery, individuals such as Olaudah Equiano, aka “Equiano, the African” and James Forten found success on American shores. Did the success of Equiano, Forten and others negate the suffering and systemic oppression of those enslaved? Obviously not.
Today, there are still mountains of disturbing data documenting the disparity between the African-American community and whites. African-Americans currently see 18 percent unemployment, and make up 53 percent of those incarcerated (even though they are only 13 percent of the US population). Wealth disparities, high school dropout rates, college graduation rates and home foreclosure rates echo the persistence of deep racial disparities. Still, the likes of a Wardell Connerly, Shelby Steele, or Clarence Thomas stand before conservatives and argue that we no longer need affirmative action, Head Start and other social programs.
Individual success should never become the standard measure of success for the collective. It is only through group success that the African-American community will truly become politically and economically empowered.
Dr. Carson made some very inaccurate and dangerous statements during his CPAC speech that cannot go unchallenged. He stated as referenced above, “Nobody is starving on the streets (of America).” According to Bread for the World, “14.5 percent of US households struggle to put enough food on the table. More than 48 million Americans – including 16.2 million children – live in these households … Among African-Americans and Latinos, nearly one in three children is at risk of hunger.” Has Carson forgotten that in 1951 he may have been one of those hungry children?
He also stated, “Many people don’t know this, but socialism started as a reaction to America because people in Europe, they looked at us and said, ‘Wait a minute, look at those Americans … people like Henry Ford, Kellogg, Vanderbilt … they’ve got so much money …’ it needs to be redistributed.” Actually, the term socialism is attributed to Pierre Leroux and Robert Owen around 1827. Henry Ford was not born until 1863. Socialist models and ideas espousing common or public ownership have existed since antiquity. Karl Marx, considered by many to be the founder of modern socialism, first published Das Kapital in 1847. Henry Ford was 4 years old. Socialism was actually a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, which started in Britain around 1760.
Complaining of the “war on God,” Carson said, “People don’t want to talk about God. … Let’s let everybody believe what they want to believe. And that means, PC police, don’t you be coming down on the people who believe in God and who believe in Jesus.” Actually, the basis of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment is the freedom to believe. It is one of the few absolute protections that the Constitution provides. There is a big difference between belief and imposing belief or practice on others through coercion by the state. If Carson understood the Constitution, he would know that.
Dr. Carson has a very motivational story, but his political analysis and message lack the real understanding of the issues necessary to be taken seriously. It is dangerous to use the success of an individual as the basis of a sociological or economic indictment of an entire class of individuals. A reporter once asked Dr. Carson why he never talked about race – to which he responded, “…because I’m a neurosurgeon.” Well, Dr. Carson, I’ll make a deal with you, I’ll stay out of the operating room if you leave the political analysis and dialogue to trained professionals.