By Denise Oliver Velez / Daily Kos
Historically, black Americans tend to be overlooked when it comes to achievements in science, math, and medicine. So it was with great pride that we embraced the acclaim garnered by Dr. Ben Carson, neurosurgeon, who inspired many of our youngsters to go on to college and to follow his career in medicine. His autobiography, Gifted Hands, is a present that has been given to many young people in black households across America.
Hence, many of us are beyond appalled that this man has morphed into an anti-science reactionary who touts creationism, intelligent design, and anti-evolutionism. What makes it even worse is that he is now the poster child for the right-wing tea party attacks against Barack Obama, the Democratic Party, and Democrats running for the 2016 nomination. He has become the antithesis of the civil rights struggle, directly attacking the gains we have made and are fighting to hold onto. He embodies a “great black hope” agenda for white tea partiers, and racists who are willing to forgo their racism as long as the black person they control is steeped in their brand of tea.
I can’t say that I am surprised by this tactic. Look at the “replacement” of Thurgood Marshall, an iconic Supreme Court Justice and defender of civil rights, with Clarence Thomas.
See the McCain campaign’s attempt to buy off women by choosing Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate, who was supposed to appeal to us women simply because she has ovaries. Now see how the GOP’s new rising star of femininity—Carly Fiorina—is primarily a hatchet woman to be used against Planned Parenthood.
The selection of Carson does two things. There is a delusional hope (what is in that tea they are drinkin?) that the black electorate will automatically shift gears to back Carson—because he is black—and peel off minority support from frontrunner Hillary Clinton. They must believe their own rhetoric: That we voted for Obama in large numbers simply because he is black. Sorry, teapubs—if you believe that bullshit I have a bridge to sell you from my hometown in Brooklyn.
The second key element is that Carson’s candidacy provides a “we are not racists” shield for them to hide behind. See. Look. The. Man. Is. Black. We teapubs have black people too.
Why am I not impressed? All they are proving is that they can field equal opportunity wingers: Black (Carson), Latino (Cruz and Rubio), and female (Carly Fiorina).
Let’s look at the mostly white people who “heart” Carson.
When Jenée Desmond-Harris interviewed some conservative white Ben Carson superfans in South Carolina in January, she found they were most enthusiastic about what she called the “made-for-Hollywood narrative arc of his life.” Carson grew up poor in Detroit, but after working and studying hard, he became a successful and famous neurosurgeon.
“It goes to show that if you have a dream and fulfill that dream, it can be done,” 71-year-old Martin Kolar of Myrtle Beach told her. Others praised Carson’s faith and character — key selling points to evangelical voters, who preferred Carson to Trump in a recent poll of Iowa Republicans.
Sometimes, however, these citations of Carson’s biography can have an implicit — or not so implicit — racial undertone. “He would be a wonderful role model for everyone, especially for the black people,” 72-year-old Peggy Kemmerly of Elongee said. “You know, to get them off entitlements. He could open doors. Well, doors have been opened for them, but unfortunately they haven’t accessed them.” And Kolar said that he hoped Carson “removes the hyphen” in African-American to identify as “just American, to heal the racial divide we’ve been forced into.”
Barry Saunders, columnist and reporter for the News and Observer, wrote a take-down of Carson well before his run for the nomination, back in 2011:
For instance, who can dispute the importance of personal responsibility – not a Republican invention, by the way – when Carson tells in his autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” how his mother, not willing to believe he was a “dummy” as teachers and fellow students called him, made his brother and him turn off the television set and write her twice-weekly essays. She then made them read the essays to her. It was years later, he said, before his brother and he realized that their mother made them read the essays because she was illiterate. In explaining how he succeeded, Carson proclaimed at CPAC, “It was because I had a mother who believed in me.”
She didn’t do it alone
No doubt, Mother Carson deserves tremendous credit, but – in the words of a political sound bite from the last presidential election – she didn’t do it alone. Carson, in his book, tells how his grades improved tremendously when a government program provided him with free eyeglasses because he could barely see. Not only that, in “Gifted Hands” we read this nugget: “By the time I reached ninth grade, mother had made such strides that she received nothing but food stamps. She couldn’t have provided for us and kept up the house without that subsidy.” He writes elsewhere, “As I’ve said, we received food stamps and couldn’t have made it without them.”
Oy. Ben Carson now, though, bemoans the “welfare state” and talks about how the rich have always taken care of the poor, how “no one is starving in America” and how government dependence kills initiative. Eating welfare cheese obviously didn’t kill his ambition or prevent him from becoming a great surgeon, but he now thinks it would be bad for everyone else. Sort of like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, eh, railing against Medicare and government-backed student loans – even while admitting that his parents received Medicare and he went to college on student loans? How many more Ben Carsons might there be out there who, if Carson’s plans go into effect, would never get a chance to shine?
Hypocrisy, thy name is Carson.
Carson of course is not alone in representing black conservatives and Republicans, who are a varied bunch: Allen West, Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, Michael Steele, Tim Scott, Mia Love, Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Star Parker, Larry Elder and Colin Powell represent a spectrum. Powell, of course, is anathema to his own party, since he endorsed Barack Obama. He comes from a time when black Republicans were like Sen. Edward Brooke.
Theodore R. Johnson examines black Republicans and conservatives in “The Partisan Paradox of Black Republicans” and points to a spectrum of reasons for their existence:
So why would any black person want to be Republican? It varies from person to person, but Rigueur’s work suggests the reasons fall into four rough categories. First, many inherited the political loyalty of their ancestors that supported the party of Abraham Lincoln and saw hope in the black outreach of Teddy Roosevelt. Second, others believe that economic security is the best way to secure civil rights, so their “work hard and be twice-as-good” mentality aligns well with conservative principles and policies. This may sound like prioritizing individualism over collective well-being, but it is closer to a belief that personal responsibility is the best way to achieve group progress. Third, there are those who believe a contested black electorate is the best way to empower black America, so they make the pragmatic decision to work from the Republican side. And fourth, and most interestingly, there are opportunists who choose the Republican Party because its black underrepresentation creates more attention and prospects for the few black members it does have.
Johnson’s take is far milder than the one taken by Chauncey DeVega in “Ben Carson’s destructive lies: 4 racist assumptions endorsed & magnified by black conservatives.” He concludes:
Black conservatives are highly prized by Republicans. As such, they are well compensated on the lecture circuit, by the right-wing media machine, and are coddled and protected by a network of well-funded conservative think tanks and public relations firms. Their designated role as the “best black friend” for Republicans, the “special” and “good one,” is ego gratifying. And because the Black Freedom Struggle is in many ways a burden that some black folks are either too weak or unwilling to carry, black conservatives from the Reagan era onward have chosen to betray that honorable past for reasons of convenience, cowardice, lucre, and self-aggrandizement.
Black conservatives who channel racist talking points about African-Americans in the service of institutional white power are not a new phenomenon. During chattel slavery, for example, the role of “the driver” on the plantation—the middle manager who was responsible for much of the day-to-day discipline and operation of the slave labor camp—was often a black man. Likewise, for reasons humane (protecting one’s family and kin from white enslavers) and craven (owning black human property to extract wealth and income from their bodies, minds, and labor), a very small number of African-Americans in the antebellum South chose to own slaves.
Some people choose to challenge power by lying down and surrendering to it; others decide to benefit from its injustices and inequalities. The black conservatives in today’s Republican Party have made a strategic choice to do both.
Renee Bracey Sherman, reproductive justice activist, takes a hard look at Carson’s compact with the anti-abortion right wing in this article. She writes:
History tells us that black women created their own forms of contraception and abortion-inducing teas with cotton root and other herbs while enslaved, to keep their owners from profiting off their bodies. The ability to plan pregnancies has always been essential to black women. For example, SisterReach, a nonprofit in Memphis, is using billboard campaigns to fight for access to shame-free reproductive healthcare, including abortion.
If GOP candidates really want to show off their “pro-life” values, they could discuss how the lack of health care access is devastating to the black community’s health. They could decry St. Louis police’s recent use of tear gas against Black Lives Matter protesters, which has been found to cause spontaneous miscarriages. But Carson believes that our First Amendment right to march for the lives of black youth is “silly,” and unfortunately, he’s not alone on the campaign trail in thinking that. And so we’ll keep seeing the GOP field bolster their conservative credentials using debunked myths, hypocrisy and baseless claims — and in the process, continue to deny women like me access to safe abortion care.
I have read a plethora of negative opinions from black writers on Dr. Ben, and they will keep coming as long as he is in the race and beyond. His future is assured in right-wing circles and on the speaker circuit, as well as on televised forums provided by Fox News. Since it would be incorrect to psychoanalyze Carson specifically, it makes more sense to put him and all the other black reactionaries of his ilk into a historical context and framework. He is not the first black man or woman used by those whose foot is on our necks to co-sign their ideology and practices, and he won’t be the last. Nor is he the first to profit from it.
So allow me to shift gears and recommend a historical perspective that is still valid today.
In “Black History is American history: Books you should read,” one of the texts I featured was by Frantz Fanon. Pondering Ben Carson has sent me back to my bookshelf, to re-read the work of of this “Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary.”
Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon:
Few modern voices have had as profound an impact on the black identity and critical race theory as Frantz Fanon, and Black Skin, White Masks represents some of his most important work. Fanon’s masterwork is now available in a new translation that updates its language for a new generation of readers.
A major influence on civil rights, anti-colonial, and black consciousness movements around the world, Black Skin, White Masks is the unsurpassed study of the black psyche in a white world. Hailed for its scientific analysis and poetic grace when it was first published in 1952, the book remains a vital force today from one of the most important theorists of revolutionary struggle, colonialism, and racial difference in history.
Frantz Omar Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, which was then a French colony and is now a French département. His father was a descendant of enslaved Africans; his mother was said to be an “illegitimate” child of African, Indian and European descent, whose white ancestors came from Strasbourg in Alsace. Fanon’s family was socio-economically middle-class and they could afford the fees for the Lycée Schoelcher, then the most prestigious high school in Martinique, where the writer Aimé Césaire was one of his teachers.
While the book does call for an end to oppression along with attempting to identify the nature of the “black self,” it is also a direct assault on what many considered (and still consider) to be the essence of the black identity. As such, the book becomes a sort of internal conversation among black people calling for a reassessment of who we consider ourselves to be.
Given the current debates raging about a post-racial America, the election of the nation’s first black president, and continued disagreements over what really constitutes “blackness,” we may find that Fanon provided some very intriguing answers–over 50 years ago–to our most pressing questions about black people.
Zia Sardar writes in “Fanon and the Epidemiology of Oppression:”
Black Skin, White Masks was the first book to investigate the psychology of colonialism. It examines how colonialism is internalised by the colonised, how an inferiority complex is inculcated, and how, through the mechanism of racism, black people end up emulating their oppressors. It is due to the sensitivities of Fanon, says Ashis Nandy, that ‘we know something about the interpersonal patterns which constituted the colonial situation, particularly in Africa’ . Fanon began a process of psychoanalytic deconstruction that was developed further first by Nandy in The Intimate Enemy and then by Ngugi wa Thiong in Decolonising the Mind (1986). Other theorists of colonial subjectivity have followed in their footsteps.
Fanon writes from the perspective of a colonised subject. He is a subject with a direct experience of racism who has developed a natural and intense hatred of racism. When it comes to experience, this is no ordinary subject : already the author has fought for the resistance in the Caribbean and France, has been wounded near the Swiss border, and received a citation for courage. He has a professional interest in psychoanalysis and speaks of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and Carl Gustav Jung without much distinction. He is going to offer us a psychoanalytic interpretation of the black problem, he says. But we can be sure that this is not a therapy session. Fanon is no armchair philosopher or academic theorist. He has a more urgent and pressing thing on his mind: Liberation.
Our history, as a colonized people inside the United States cast perpetually as “the other,” provides a constant tension and challenge for us as black Americans. We are all too aware of the fact that despite the fact that one of us ascended to the Oval Office, our struggle is far from over. In many ways Barack Obama’s election has increased efforts to eliminate his ascendancy, unleashing unfiltered hate against us from right-wing quarters and upping the efforts to undo what has benefited us on his watch.
We, as black Democrats watch those efforts—including the touting of a man who bears our complexion, but not our interests—with a determination to ensure that he and his handlers fail in their efforts to turn the clock back on the incremental progress we have made.
Oh hell no, Ben Carson!
This black woman will be thinking of you as I cast my ballot for the Democrats on the ticket in the spring, middle finger held high and pointed in your direction.