by Kevin Blackwell
Today I am in mourning. I’m not an emotional dude—so that really is saying a lot. I’m mourning one of my most prized childhood role models, famous pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson.
Growing up as a black male geek, you often struggle for role models who really speak to your specific talents and gifts. That’s why when my dad emailed me a couple weeks ago to report that Dr. Carson was being claimed by conservatives after some statements at the National Prayer Breakfast, I quickly dismissed it as typical Republican opportunistic misinformation. But after reading about Dr. Carson’s speech at CPAC on Saturday, I find myself mired in a deep, dark malaise over the revelation that conservatives can (legitimately!) claim a man who was such a formative member of my early years.
It’s obvious I’m a little bitter but bear with me. Conservatives: why must you keep targeting your high fructose, syrupy sweet, deceptive, supply-side rhetoric at my childhood heroes? While you have a stable full of Sesame Street characters, flat earthers, and reality show prospects clamoring to flood your airwaves with counterfactual talking points delivered from a minority face, I only have a few heroes left.
Before I lay into Dr. Carson (did you see the speech? Trust me, he deserves every critique he gets.), let me try to explain why my despair runs so deep. As a young man, I could never get truly and fully excited about performers and sports stars. After getting cut from my freshman basketball team (the only way my basketball career resembles Jordan’s) and receiving less-than-positive reviews every time I tried to rock the microphone, I had to find some role models better suited to my own talents. Don’t get me wrong. I love Jay-Z and LeBron—but I love Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West far more. Enter Dr. Ben Carson. The famed pediatric neurosurgeon and author of the bestselling autobiography Gifted Hands occupied an esteemed position in my heart and mind until this past Saturday.
To say that I’m surprised and disappointed by Dr. Carson’s words on Saturday would be an understatement. This whole turn of events is especially perplexing given Dr. Carson’s medical background; conservatives rarely get legitimate scientists precisely because their philosophy is so frequently hostile to actual science or empirical evidence.
Having someone like Herman Cain pop up out of nowhere and embarrass black folk not once, but twice (non-black folk can join in: there is enough embarrassment to go around) is one thing. But this is even worse. It really reminds me of the Juan Williams fiasco. I’m in mourning because like Williams, Dr. Carson is an accomplished, black intellectual who we thought we could proudly claim. Unfortunately, I have strict rules prohibiting me from claiming rich dudes (of any race) who complain about high taxes, deny the reality of food insecurity for poor and working people, and/or disagree that all people are entitled to healthcare.
I’m far sadder for Dr. Carson than I am worried about any political impact he could have. He is more likely to damage his own reputation with those silly, hyperbolic attacks on Obama or the left. Obama is actively trying to destroy the country?…I haven’t heard that one before.
Like with Juan Williams, I have to chalk this up to ego. If you are a black conservative you instantly move to the front of the line. You are treated like a rock star. Your earning potential skyrockets. Black liberal media personalities or candidates have to put in their dues and prove themselves like everyone else. Black conservative media personalities just have to show up to the studio relatively sober. And conservatives supposedly oppose affirmative action!
Dr. Carson’s willingness to sell out the truth for some media appearances and/or a political career is a sign of severe moral bankruptcy. Honestly, I don’t have any problem if he’s a black conservative. I don’t have any problem if he’s criticizing Obama. In fact, if the criticism is about signature strikes, civil liberties, Bradley Manning, etc, I’ll be the first one to add my voice. But Dr. Carson’s critique was the same old fact-free conservative nonsense masquerading as new, fresh, apolitical analysis. Compound this with the fact that he did it at CPAC while rubbing shoulders and shaking hands with identified racists and bigots like Hannity, , Beck, , etc—I hardly know what to say. To my mind this outs him as a craven, opportunistic hack willing to compromise his integrity for a little money, attention, and power.
Conservatives have long searched for articulate minorities to pose as the face for their retrograde ideas. But the truth is that this desire is silly and based on flawed analysis. Ironically, tragically, it’s an analysis based in racism. Even with a sustained media campaign and/or run for electoral office by Dr. Carson I’d be surprised if he could sway 1–3% of black Obama voters to vote Republican. He likely would have an even smaller effect on non-black, left-leaning voters. Once minorities hear the crazy things he’s required (and sadly, willing) to say to appear on conservative media or run in a Republican primary it’s game over. Conservatives’ problem isn’t marketing, branding or messenger. It’s a problem with the content of the message itself. It’s a message characterized by decades of failed policy, selfishness, dishonesty, racism, bigotry—and general hating.
Dr. Carson has announced he plans to retire from medicine in just a few months in order to make a larger impact elsewhere (presumably in media or politics). Make no mistake about it, any political career he might choose to pursue will be dead shortly after arrival. Soon after, he’ll be offered a lucrative contract with Fox “News.” But that gig will be short-lived because scientists rarely make captivating media personalities (Neil deGrasse Tyson exempted of course). Memories of his storied career as one of the world’s premier neurosurgeons will be quickly replaced with cable news show sound bites illuminating his Cain-esque level of unpreparedness.
In truth, Dr. Carson’s speech wasn’t the conservative wet dream they’re making it out to be. While he doesn’t appear to have completely adopted the conservative platform yet, we’ve seen this story before. When they are this far gone they rarely come back (Much love David Brock). So let me just make an impassioned, open plea to any conservative decision maker who might be within earshot: If any one of my few remaining childhood heroes (this guy, or this guy, or any of these guys) approaches you seeking backing for a conservative media blitz or electoral office run, please pull a Palin and say “thanks but no thanks.”