I’m not angry about Dr. Ben Carson’s latest comments about President Barack Obama for one reason only; they’ve instead pushed me into a state of mourning as I watch the continued diminishment of a man who had long been a living, breathing icon of Black History Month all by himself.
I no longer even know how to process what Carson has become. Should I celebrate his accomplishments? Or despair over his patented, painful ignorance?
It was bad enough that he suggested to Politico’s Glenn Thrush on Saturday that Obama isn’t authentically black — a trope I thought we left in 2008 — because Obama’s upbringing didn’t resemble Carson’s. It’s worse that he also absolved Donald Trump of his naked bigotry.
“I have not witnessed anything that would make me say that about him,” Carson responded when Thrush asked if Trump was racist.
Carson talked about not being very observant of such things. Such things as Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Trump’s talk of Mexican rapists, Trump’s history of inflaming racial tensions in the “Central Park” jogger case even after the five young black men who had been falsely convicted were found innocent — implying that you find racism only where you expect it, as though the recipient is the cause of discrimination.
Carson wasn’t observant enough to know about the Department of Justice’s case against Trump in the 1970s for allegedly using a racial code to keep black renters out of his properties: Staff members were told to mark their applications with a “C” for colored.
Carson wasn’t observant enough to catch a recent article in The Guardian detailing Trump’s history, including this tidbit:
“In February 2000, when Trump was again flirting with a run for the White House, he took out anonymous ads in local upstate New York newspapers, in an effort to shut down a rival casino backed by a group of Native Americans. Beneath a picture of needles and drug paraphernalia, the ad stated: “Are these the new neighbors we want?” It added: “The St. Regis Mohawk Indian record of criminal activity is well documented.”
The man who could only muster up an “it’s not the tone that I would use” while discussing Trump is the man who compared the signature domestic achievement of the nation’s first black president, the Affordable Care Act, to chattel slavery.
On Saturday, he also told Thrush this:
“I mean, like most Americans, I was proud that we broke the color barrier when [Obama] was elected, but … he didn’t grow up like I grew up. … Many of his formative years were spent in Indonesia. So, for him to, you know, claim that, you know, he identifies with the experience of black Americans, I think, is a bit of a stretch.”
“They assume because you’re black, you have to think a certain way,” he said. “And if you don’t think that way, you’re ‘Uncle Tom,’ you’re worthy of every horrible epithet they can come up with; whereas, if I weren’t black, then I would just be a Republican.”
Carson has perfected the racial two-step, in one breath bemoaning that some people question the motives of black conservatives and in the next revoking Obama’s black American card. It is the clearest sign yet that he knows how to capitalize on victimhood in ways those he excoriates never could.
It hurts because just about a month ago, I got a glimpse of the person I had long believed to be the real Ben Carson, the “Gifted Hands,” pre-political version, at a Martin Luther King Day prayer breakfast in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where top presidential candidates routinely make appearances to pay respects to King more than overtly scrounge for votes.
Carson was relaxed and funny, inspiring.
A young black man “has no reason to believe his ancestors weren’t involved in the development of this country,” he told the mixed-race crowd, while listing off a who’s who among black American historical figures, such as Andrew Beard, Lewis Latimer, Daniel Hale Williams and Charles Drew. “Walk down the street, and for any nationality, you can point out tremendous contributions that were made. That’s one of the amazing things about this country in which we live. Our diversity is not a problem; it is a strength. And we have to stop allowing ourselves to be divided.”
Because of his exploits in pediatric neurosurgery, he could have included his name in that list and no one would have batted an eye. Instead, he talked more about how his mother instilled a love of education in her children and about a scholarship program that has helped thousands of young people than about himself.
Ever since that day, I have been longing for the moment he’d become that man again. But no longer. That dream is dead. The chances seem better that he’ll be hosting a show on the Fox News Channel than reclaiming what was an unblemished place among black American icons.
“The purveyors of division have come in and they have wreaked havoc on our society,” Carson told that Myrtle Beach crowd.
No one held up a mirror as he spoke those words. Had they, maybe Carson would have been observant enough to notice his own reflection.
Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Twitter: @ijbailey The views expressed are his own.