By Alan Yuhas
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has accused Black Lives Matter activists of “creating strife”, underscoring the awkward relationship between conservatism and race for the only African American campaigning for president.
“Of course black lives matter,” Carson said on Wednesday after speaking at a closed-door event with local politicians and businessmen in Harlem. “But what I feel instead of people pointing fingers at each other and just creating strife, what we need to be talking about is how do we solve problems in the black community. Of murder, essentially.”
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters.
Carson then raised a 2011 statistic that was often cited during violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, noting that homicide is the most likely cause of death for young black men. He said that African Americans needed to return to “family and faith”, which he said were “the values and principles that got black people through slavery and segregation and Jim Crowism.”
The former neurosurgeon, coming in second in a new CNN poll of the Republican candidates, went on to attribute the high rates of poverty, single-parent homes and dependency on welfare programs to this same loss of values. “As we throw those things away we’re seeing terrible crimes occurring in our communities,” he said.
He also blamed Democrats for racial inequality, saying “the Democratic party has subscribed to the Lyndon Johnson philosophy”, which he defined by paraphrasing an apocryphal quote from the former president: “if we give those N-words such and such, they’ll vote for us for the next 200 years.”
Asked whether the Republican party – whose members are overwhelmingly white – has a race problem, Carson smiled: “Everyone has a race problem.”
“What the Republican party needs to do is come out and discuss more the kinds of relationships and the programs that will help bring people out of poverty,” he said, “to rise rather than simply be satisfied in a dependent position in our society.”
In response to critics who accuse him of being an “Uncle Tom”, Carson alluded to his difficult childhood and his subsequent climb into the elite tiers of medicine and politics. “They need to actually listen to not only what I’m saying but look at my life and look at what’s been done,” he said.
For decades, Carson’s story – from poverty in Detroit and Boston to disciplined study for decades, a rise to wealth and prestige bolstered by evangelical faith – has resonated with black communities around the US, and a few passersby on 125th Street called out to Carson on sight.
Robert Rice, a state chaplain in his mid-40s, posed with Carson for a photo after shouting out that the doctor’s book had changed his life. “At 15, 16, I had gotten into drugs and smoking marijuana, and was struggling with my academics,” Rice said. His pastor gave him a copy of the book, which helped convince him he could work hard enough to earn his GED.
Rice’s admiration was not without its caveats. “I would vote for him. I mean I’m not saying that he he would be my first choice. I like Donald Trump, you know, because he’s a different face, he doesn’t hold back.”
Retired postal worker Rosa Greene also said she would consider voting for Carson, “because he’s black”. Her friend Doris Leary, another retired postal worker, was more circumspect, saying that she had voted Democrat for years and would wait to see how the primaries turned out.
More often, Harlem natives either did not recognize Carson or were more wary of his politics. Myrna Coombs, a 57-year-old teacher, said that while she admired Carson’s intelligence his professional accomplishments, she was a Democrat through and through – like most of Harlem, New York City and New York state.
“He’s in the wrong party,” she said. “I like Bernie,” she went on, praising Senator Bernie Sanders, the outside contender in the Democratic primary race. Sanders’ attention to inequality, race issues and college debt, what Coombs called “the witches brew” of the country, most appealed to her.
Yvonne Boyd, selling CDs on the sidewalk of Malcolm X Boulevard, had far less patience for Carson and Republicans at large. “Well, he ain’t gonna do nothing for us,” she said. “I think that the motherfucker ain’t gonna do shit.”
Outside the restaurant a few partisans lingered to praise the doctor. Lolita Ferrin, a 59-year-old Republican district leader, said that she particularly appreciated Carson’s attitude toward federal benefits.
“Welfare does serve its purpose,” she argued, but people had grown too dependent on it. Ferrin added she did not understand the assumption that black Americans should vote Democrat, saying that she switched parties as she realized “the government is taking too much control”.
Appealing to moderate conservative voters
Black Republicans remain “a microscopic population” of voters, said Leah Wright Rigueur, a Harvard professor and author of a history of black conservatism, the Loneliness of the Black Republican.
Wright Rigueur suggested that Carson’s speech in Harlem may actually be an appeal to white Republicans, mirroring a strategy developed by Ronald Reagan.
“If he can appeal to black people by going to the epicenter of blackness,” she said, “he can say ‘I’m authentic, I’m with the people.’
“It’s a way to make conservatism less scary and make it appealing to moderate conservative voters. The idea being ‘if we win some black and Latino voters, great, but really this is to win moderate white voters’.”
Wright Rigueur added that although Carson draws on the ethos of self-reliance espoused by black leaders like Booker T Washington, he is much more religious and “more conservative than the men and women of old”.
Carson’s “flexible” conservatism allows him to denounce the Confederate flag on one hand and tack to the far right on abortion and immigration on the other, she said. But she predicted that the longstanding strategy of tiptoeing around racial issues would no longer work for either party.
“The amazing thing about Black Lives Matter is it’s this kind of amorphous, disparate but connected progressive movement,” she said, “and it’s forcing candidates to actually address these things.”
Wright Rigueur also noted that there is far more political diversity among African American voters than pundits usually allow, a factor that seems to draw black politicians to the center. She noted several similarities in speeches by Carson and Barack Obama, for instance, about “black men uplifting themselves”.
The speeches reflected “this real belief in meritocracy without necessarily confronting the structural, racial impediments to it”, she said, that would no longer satisfy black voters.
“Maybe four years ago, maybe eight years ago, but not in this election.”
An older version of this post appears in The Root