Correction: Due to an editing error, this post briefly stated that Carson grew up in Baltimore. He grew up in Detroit.
Oh dear. Did Ben Carson just say that, if elected president, he would effectively be the nation's first black president, because Barack Obama was "raised white"?
Yes. Yes, indeed. He really did. In an interview with Politico's Glenn Thrush that was first aired in a podcast Tuesday, the conversation turned to race and the way Carson felt about Obama's historic inauguration in January 2009. Here is precisely what he said, from a transcript:
THRUSH: Because I don't think he enjoyed the speech, right? But are you curious at all about what his experience was like? I mean, did you ‑‑ when he was elected ‑‑
CARSON: Which experience?
THRUSH: The experience of being ‑‑ let's just stop it at January 20, 2009, right. Was that significant for you? As somebody who sat and watched that ‑‑ I was there, I was in the crowd, right?
THRUSH: It was a pretty interesting moment in American history, right? Did you derive any joy out of that? Any sense of pride? How did you sort of ‑‑ how did you process that?
CARSON: You know, I did not. I mean, like most Americans, I was proud that we broke the color barrier when he was elected, but I also recognize that his experience and my experience are night-and-day different. He didn't grow up like I grew up by any stretch of the imagination.
THRUSH: That's right.
CARSON: Not even close.
THRUSH: He's an "African" American as opposed to an African American.
CARSON: He's an "African" American. He was, you know, raised white. 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.
THRUSH: That's interesting.
It was, admittedly, a segment of the conversation about as deep as a puddle, but that's where it went.
Thrush didn't make any effort to explore precisely what signifies Carson's idea of a truly "black" or "African American" upbringing. Carson did make a reference to the president spending his formative years in Indonesia and then Hawaii.
More specifically, Obama was born in Hawaii, to a white mother and an African father, moved to Indonesia as a child with his Indonesian stepfather and his mother, who, by all accounts, had a real and abiding interest in various cultures, the structure of inequality and the effects of discrimination in the United States. Obama then returned to Hawaii, where he was reared by his white grandparents, attended a private school attended mostly by white students and spent a good portion of his childhood, teenage and young adult years trying to determine what it meant for him, an individual man, to be black. Obama has written about this inner work extensively and about how he managed it while his appearance -- phenotypically black -- seemed to provide so many others with all the information they thought they needed. As a youth and later as an adult, Obama has described and understood himself to be a black man with a white mother and white grandparents he held dear. That's Obama's story as he has publicly told it and written it in several books.
Carson was born to two black parents, lived in various states of abject to serious poverty, attended the low-quality schools made available to poor black children in Detroit and then saw his life options expanded by a move to a more challenging and higher quality, predominantly white school. Once there, Carson's hard work, his white classmates' teasing and his mother's insistent urging -- along with, let us not forget, acts of anger and violence and then salvation -- gave Carson his current life. Carson has, like Obama, developed his own sense of what it means for him, an individual man, to be black. All of that is also what we know about Carson from his public statements and books.
We really can't or won't quibble with each man's read on his own life. But we will say this:
There is something fundamentally odd about Carson's assertion that Obama was raised white, because it contains within it the insinuation that there is only one way to be black or experience blackness. There is only one way to be raised black. It strongly suggests that Carson believes that is directly connected to the racial identity of one's caregivers, the racial makeup of one's school and surroundings and the socioeconomic experiences that, in this country, remain closely but not absolutely linked to race.
But what makes Carson's suggestion more than curious is that his campaign is absolutely studded with moments in which Carson has insisted that race is either without meaning -- on the list of "silly" topics used to distract and divide Americans from more important issues. In fact, because Carson is a presidential candidate, race and the quantifiable experiences of disadvantage, discrimination and inequality that is closely tied to it for many black Americans rank on his list of things to be discussed almost never. That is what Carson has said throughout his campaign.
Now, in a short segment of a podcast, Carson has all but said that discrimination and disadvantage are the definitive black experience in America -- after months and months of saying quite the opposite. He has all but implied that the management and overcoming thereof, as well as immersion in or being surrounded by other black Americans who are similarly situated, is what it means to be "raised" black or be truly black and "African American."
And this is what Carson has implied after advocating for policies which stem from the pretense that all poverty, disadvantage and all but the most violent forms of discrimination either can or simply must be overcome by sheer hard work. In the world according to Carson, the will of the individual and one's moral compass or grounding are what determine life outcomes in all but the most extreme circumstances.
Carson, of course, has every right to believe those things and support the policies that flow from them. He can and should do so without anyone questioning his blackness or who he believes and understands that he is. But it must also be noted that this set of ideas not only appeals to many white Republicans. It is, in fact, a substantial part of what, at one time, made Carson a rising star within the party and a onetime contender in Iowa. These are the ideas that make Carson a firm fit in a party that is, in fact, so overwhelmingly white that its own leadership has very publicly fretted about its future in an increasingly diverse America.
It also must be said that Carson's view of disadvantage, discrimination, inequality and their solutions carries with it little to nothing in the way of larger and collective social obligations. It does not require strategic and research-based public investments in expanding and sustaining socioeconomic opportunity. It does not require a careful look at existing tax policy or any inquiry into where and upon whom the most generous breaks are distributed.
Avoiding the reality that Carson's life options and prospects did not improve until he was enrolled in a school that by his description was best understood by its mostly white enrollment, rigor and overall quality is a choice. The same is true of the choice to face or ignore the still-pervasive reality that black and Latino children are -- even today -- overwhelmingly enrolled in the nation's worst schools, taught by the country's least experienced teachers and spend large portions of their day in the nation's worst school facilities. This is, of course, just one measure of socioeconomic welfare and inequality which contributes to this reality.
Socioeconomic mobility in the United States is largely a matter of myth. Most Americans will live their lives and die within the same or a lower social and economic state than that of their parents. The exceptions come in the form of exceptional individuals.
Whether or not this is the right way to operate as a country remains one of the animating political questions of our time. To be perfectly clear, it also an animating force in what remains of Carson's campaign. The desire that some -- maybe even many -- white conservative voters harbor to acquit these ideas of charges that they embody modern and subtle racism has actually drawn voters to his campaign. This is among the things that these voters believe that Carson, the black and very conservative Republican candidate, offers them.
Now, as Tuesday morning has progressed into Tuesday afternoon, the entirely predictable national outrage and justification factories have kicked into gear. Carson's comments have been ridiculed and excoriated by some on one side of the nation's political divide and explained, endorsed and justified by some on the other. And Carson has dutifully offered an addendum to his ideas that would itself seem to speak volumes about where he knows his political support lies and whom he does not wish to offend.
Carson has explained that, in saying that Obama was raised white, he did not mean that he believes that there is anything "wrong with that."