When I first met Ben Carson in 1996, at his luxurious home outside Baltimore, I stood before one of my heroes. I was a college senior at the nearby University of Maryland at Baltimore County, and Carson was a leading neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I had been accepted to Johns Hopkins for medical school and was invited to campus as part of a “second look” weekend, where admitted African American students got the chance to interact with black medical students, young doctors and faculty members, all offering assurances that if we chose Hopkins, we would not be isolated.
Our experience culminated with brunch at Carson’s home. As a future doctor, I felt genuinely thrilled to meet him. Here was a black man who had excelled in academics, rather than the familiar avenues of sports and entertainment. His important work not only saved lives but gave him entrée to the highest echelons of society. Carson’s impact on other African American students who aspired to become physicians was equally profound. In every group of black pre-meds or medical students I met, someone invariably wanted to become a neurosurgeon, and Carson’s name was always mentioned. This wasn’t just my experience: Black medical students are about five times as likely as their non-black classmates to choose neurological surgery as their specialty.
Today, Carson’s greatest fans are no longer those within the black community. Instead, in a bizarre twist, he has become a major star among the far-right – the faction of the Republican Party often perceived as being indifferent, or worse, to African Americans. Many black doctors – given our longstanding adulation of Carson – are puzzled and discouraged by this evolution. The man who built his brand as a black icon has found a new home. And it’s a place where many of us feel unwelcome.
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By now, Carson’s story is widely known. Raised by an uneducated single mother in inner-city Detroit, he overcame this inauspicious beginning to become a pioneering neurosurgeon at one of the world’s greatest medical institutions.
Even then, he espoused what are commonly described as conservative values: faith, family and self-reliance. We had long heard rumors that Carson had conservative political leanings, but that did nothing to diminish his standing within the black community. Nor should it have. He was rightly viewed as a hero, someone who used his platform to encourage us to make the best of ourselves. Jesse Jackson, then in his heyday as a political figure, wrote a blurb for Carson’s first book in 1990, describing him as “a model to all the youth of today.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in Baltimore during the ’80s and ’90s, frequently saw Carson at his school and admired him for “regularly giving his time to talk to young people, who needed to know that there was so much more beyond the streets.”
But as his surgical career approached its end, Carson reinvented himself. In February 2013, he delivered a scathing critique of President Obama’s policies at the National Prayer Breakfast while Obama sat nearby. Overnight, Carson became a celebrity of an entirely different magnitude to a completely different audience. The Wall Street Journal urged him to run for president, and he soon became a fixture on Fox News Channel. His quiet conservatism became reactionary. Suddenly, people who had never heard of Carson were treating him like an overnight sensation.
In fact, he had been a bedrock celebrity within the African American community for more than 25 years.
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For many of us still trying to reconcile the current version of Carson with our formative impressions, it doesn’t matter that he is a Republican. There are prominent examples of black Republicans – Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Louis W. Sullivan (who was secretary of Health and Human Services under George H.W. Bush) – who still enjoy favorable reception within the black community. Whatever their disagreements with Democrats, they present themselves as thoughtful, open-minded and optimistic.
What distinguishes Carson is his intense appeal to the most strident wing of the GOP and his open disdain for Obama. It is perfectly fine to disagree with Obama; quite a few African Americans from both the left and the right do. It’s fine, of course, to support a different candidate. But it is altogether different to give Obama no credit for ascending to the highest office in the United States, a feat that so many Americans – black, white and other – never thought would be possible for a black man. Sullivan, a lifelong Republican, acknowledges being deeply affected by Obama’s inauguration even if “I might wish he were doing some things differently.” In contrast, Carson said that Obama has succeeded because he operates “like a psychopath.”
Carson has leveled some of his most vicious attacks on the Obama administration’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, calling it “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” However appealing those words may be to Obama’s biggest detractors, they are absurd. Yes, the health-care law is imperfect, but it is a very real effort to stem the tide of uninsured Americans over the past three decades. Slavery, segregation and Jim Crow it is not. No black person, regardless of political affiliation, should ever make such a suggestion.
Nor should any doctor. Lacking health insurance is a big deal. Diagnoses are delayed, chronic conditions are poorly managed and medical complications are more likely to ensue. And African Americans are about 60 percent more likely than whites to be uninsured, an important reason why black people continue to experience far worse health outcomes across a variety of measures. Expanding health insurance won’t fix this problem by itself, but it is a crucial first step. Carson has acknowledged the need to expand health insurance coverage (albeit in a different manner). But his anti-Obama rhetoric drowns out this significant message.
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Many black physicians will always be indebted to the role Carson played in inspiring us to enter the medical profession. This is especially true for me, a black man who grew up in the sort of environment where becoming a professional athlete – or a felon – seemed a more likely possibility.
But Carson’s new identity as political provocateur baffles and disappoints us all at once. It highlights the way that we in the black community focus all of our energy on celebrating just a few superstars. For example, while the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is deservedly the most revered African American in our history, focusing on him to the exclusion of others does a disservice to the likes of Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Dorothy Height and other leaders in the civil rights movement. Similarly, medicine offers many other black role models, such as physicians Levi Watkins, Keith Black and David Satcher – each of whom overcame major obstacles to reach professional success, just as Carson has. Although these men are largely unknown, their stories are no less worthy of our praise than Carson’s.
I respect Carson’s desire to be more than a “black role model.” I agree that greater racial harmony is achievable by focusing more on our similarities than on our differences. And no, Obama has not been perfect when it comes to race. But Carson’s callous denigration of Obama appears designed primarily to expand his platform. It comes across as opportunistic and polarizing, unbecoming of a widely respected figure who has positioned himself for so long as a humble voice of reason. As a black man who has looked up to Carson for so many years, I hope that he can figure out how to take his conservative beliefs and aim them at helping to heal the nation’s racial wounds.