“You know Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. … It is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.”
– Dr. Ben Carson, October 11, 2013
Dr. Ben Carson is a world-renowned American neurosurgeon. He is a brilliant physician with 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 joined at the head and the youngest to lead a surgical department. His focus, work ethic and commitment to excellence should be emulated by as many as possible.
In the past year, Dr. Carson has emerged on the political scene as a spokesperson for conservative interests. Most recently he addressed the 2013 Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, making the remarks referenced above.
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“Obamacare” – or more accurately the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – is the worst thing in this nation since slavery? Really? I understand political diatribes and hyperbole, but the worst thing in America since slavery? How can reducing the number of uninsured Americans through an expansion of Medicaid and the creation of new health insurance exchange marketplaces be worse than slavery?
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in America except as punishment for a crime in 1865. Since then, African-Americans have been lynched, had their farms confiscated, dealt with mass-incarceration, been denied the right to vote and had limited or no access to public and private facilities. For an African-American of Dr. Carson’s intellect and stature to publically make such assertions is historically inaccurate, irresponsible and promotes many of the racist stereotypes that are being used to garner support to overturn the law.
Does Dr. Carson really believe that the ACA is worse than the Tuskegee syphilis experiment of 1932? This infamous clinical study was conducted by the US Public Health Service on 399 African-American men from 1932 to 1972 to trace the natural progression of untreated syphilis. These human “laboratory animals” thought they were receiving free health care from the US government. By the end of the “experiment,” 28 of the men had died directly of syphilis, 100 were dead of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected and 19 of their children had been born with congenital syphilis.
Would Dr. Carson have us believe that the ACA is worse than the government-sanctioned, racially motivated attack on the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921? The Greenwood district of Tulsa, also known as Black Wall Street, was the wealthiest African-American community in America. During a 16-hour period from May 31 to June 1, 1921, whites rioted, attacked the community and burned it to the ground based upon the rumor that an African-American shoeshiner named Dick Roland touched a white female elevator operator named Sarah Page. An estimated 10,000 African-American residents were left homeless and 35 city blocks composed of 1,256 residences were destroyed by fire. The official death count by the Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics was 39, but other estimates of African-American fatalities have been up to about 300.
From 1920 to 1970, North Carolina forcibly sterilized more than 7,600 women. Most of these women were poor and African-American. This eugenics program began as a means to control the birth rates of poor white woman and quickly expanded as an attack on African-American woman. Women were being sterilized like cats and dogs are spayed and neutered.
Dr. Carson wants us to believe that the ACA is worse than this?
As Carson is being promoted in conservative political circles as an informed spokesman on the talk circuit, he quickly has become a political minstrel show. He’s jumping Jim Crow. “Jump Jim Crow” is a song and dance that was performed in blackface by a white comedian named Thomas Dartmouth around 1830, the early minstrel era of American entertainment. It made a mockery of African-Americans, lampooning them as dim-witted, lazy and buffoonish. The expression to Jump Jim Crow came to mean “to act like a stereotyped stage caricature of a black person,” usually by a white person.
Dr. Carson has once again put his black face on political ideology that is contrary to the interests of the African-American community and validates denigrating stereotypes perpetuated by its enemies. Earlier in 2013, Carson told a CPAC audience that “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. … “
He is lending his voice and using his personal narrative to validate the conservative “blame the poor” political agenda and undermine the social safety net in America.
That social safety net is needed as much today as it was in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated at the March on Washington, “One hundred years later (after the Emancipation Proclamation), the colored American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Today according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate stands at 7.3 percent and 15 percent in the African-American community. Today, “in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” according to Bread For the World, “14.5 percent of U.S. households – nearly 49 million Americans, including 16.2 million children – struggle to put food on the table” and “more than one in five children is at risk of hunger. Among African-Americans and Latinos, nearly one in three children is at risk of hunger.”
In the midst of rampant poverty in America, Republicans in the House recently pushed through a bill that cuts billions of dollars from the food stamp program. On a vote of 217-210, they agreed to slash more than $40 billion from the program in the next 10 years and require program participants between 18 and 50 without minor children to find a job or to enroll in a work-training program to receive benefits.
Part of the problem with the Republican agenda, as indicated by the unemployment statistics referenced above, is that the economy is not growing fast enough to provide gainful employment for the individuals they are targeting. Conservatives also are cutting the work-training programs that they want these individuals to enroll in.
Conservatives are using the political process, as Dr. Ronald Walter called it, to “enact a new regime of social control” over African-Americans and other poor people in this country. They are using the Ben Carsons of the world to carry their water and validate their arguments.
The argument is that the Carsons of the world have overachieved in spite of the odds; therefore, the inability of the poor (stereotypically, the “black poor”) in America to rise into the middle class or beyond is because of personal failure, lack of drive, initiative and dependence upon the government. Again, “blame the poor.” Carson made it; why can’t they? If an African-American such as Carson touts this rhetoric, it must be valid.
Carson reminds me of Clarence Thomas. During Thomas’ confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court, too many people ignored his dismal record as the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education and his destructive impact as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Left unchecked, as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Thomas has assisted ultra-conservative interests who have used the court to overturn a lot of the progress that was made in the areas of court-protected civil rights and civil liberties.
It’s not that the Ben Carsons of the world will have an immediate impact on the national policy debate. He is becoming a galvanizing force within the conservative echo chamber. As such, if left unchecked, he, like Associate Justice Thomas, can become another tool used by those who are interested in using the political system and policy reform to impose their will and implement greater social control.
The ACA is far from perfect. The flaws in the legislation will be flushed out and addressed over time, or it will die a natural death. How the Obama administration allowed the government web site to go live without beta testing, without anticipating the problems and without immediate fixes for them is at least irresponsible.
These issues should not invalidate the reality that providing access to health care coverage for more Americans is a good thing.
Dr. Carson’s stature in the medical community makes his comments even more reckless. As a physician, he should know better. If he has problems with the ACA, he should present his issues using accurate data and facts, not baseless political ideology and foolish hyperbole.
He is allowing the reputation that he has earned based upon his stellar professional accomplishments, focus, work ethic and commitment to excellence as a surgeon to be used as a front by white ultra-conservatives. He is attempting to undermine greater access to health care and other social programs, the social safety net that is needed now more than ever before.
He’s a pitiful one-man minstrel show. He’s Jumpin’ Jim Crow.
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