Ben Carson, in Baltimore, Faces a Tough Sell to the Black Community

His message did not satisfy some attendees. Others were simply thankful that he showed up to listen to their concerns.

Dr. Ben Carson speaks with faith and community leaders in Baltimore, Maryland on May 7, 2015, as he begins his bid for the White House.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
May 8, 2015, 1 a.m.

BAL­TIMORE, Mary­land—For nearly two hours on Thursday af­ter­noon, Dr. Ben Car­son spoke at a church in East Bal­timore, far from the epi­cen­ter of the protests over Fred­die Gray’s death, to a frus­trated con­greg­a­tion.

That con­greg­a­tion gathered at the Bi­lin­gual Church of Bal­timore in­cluded cler­gy­men, busi­ness own­ers, edu­cat­ors, and stu­dents—who all had the same ba­sic ques­tion: How do we ad­dress the pain the city is feel­ing in the wake of Gray’s death?

Car­son star­ted out by prais­ing the Bal­timore cit­izens who came out after the ri­ots to clean up their neigh­bor­hoods, and he said there should have been more me­dia cov­er­age of that. He also praised the black men who stood between pro­test­ers and the po­lice to de­fray con­front­a­tions. And he voiced sup­port for one area of poli­cing re­form, call­ing the use of body cam­er­as “a very ex­cel­lent idea.”

Car­son, who lived in Bal­timore for 36 years, said he nev­er per­son­ally ex­per­i­enced any trouble with po­lice, but his cous­in was killed by a po­lice of­ficer. Giv­ing his med­ic­al per­spect­ive, Car­son said it was “more than likely” Gray’s spine was destabil­ized by someone else, then ad­ded, “I’m sure that was not the in­tent of who­ever did it.”

Con­fron­ted with con­found­ing ques­tions, Car­son re­turned to his cent­ral philo­sophy: that if gov­ern­ment gets out of the way, if we cut cor­por­ate taxes, give more op­tions for charter schools, and en­cour­age the “can-do at­ti­tude” that helped him rise out of poverty, it will lift every­one in­to prosper­ity, in­clud­ing black Amer­ic­ans.

But that mes­sage, no mat­ter how up­lift­ing, struck a some­what dis­cord­ant note with the Bal­timore com­munity mem­bers he spoke with on Thursday. It is much harder for them to sep­ar­ate per­son­al suc­cess from the suc­cess of the state in­sti­tu­tions that shape their lives.

A loc­al bish­op talked about the pre­val­ence of teen preg­nancy in Bal­timore. Bal­timore City Lieu­ten­ant Col­on­el Melvin Rus­sell com­men­ted that the po­lice need to re­turn to build­ing re­la­tion­ships with com­munity mem­bers. Phyl­lis Coley, a dir­ect­or of coun­sel­ing at Ed­mond­son West­side High School, said it’s dif­fi­cult for stu­dents to achieve when their ba­sic hu­man needs aren’t be­ing met, when they are com­ing to school hungry and can’t pay at­ten­tion be­cause there is no air-con­di­tion­ing.

It’s a dizzy­ing merry-go-round of mis­for­tune for any­one to at­tempt to ad­dress—the root of one prob­lem is of­ten the tip of an­oth­er prob­lem, from po­lice bru­tal­ity, to mass in­car­cer­a­tion, to in­cent­ives to com­mit crime, to un­em­ploy­ment, to edu­ca­tion, to fam­ily life, to men­tal health.

These ques­tions are even more com­plic­ated for Car­son to an­swer. Throughout his med­ic­al and now polit­ic­al ca­reer, Car­son’s core thes­is was his self-de­term­in­a­tion: Against all odds, he achieved un­ima­gin­able suc­cess with the en­cour­age­ment of his moth­er and his own sheer will to learn. It’s a re­frain Car­son re­turned to when Khari James, a 14-year-old stu­dent at Mary­vale Pre­par­at­ory School, asked Car­son how he could ad­dress the pain be­ing felt in Bal­timore.

“I’ll tell you how I es­caped: books. I go to the lib­rary, didn’t have to pay a thing for those books. Between the cov­ers of those books, I could go any­where, I could be any­body, I could do any­thing. And I began to em­power my­self. I began to learn all kinds of things,” Car­son told James. “The most im­port­ant thing I learned was that the per­son who had the most to do with what happened to me was me and that I didn’t have to be a vic­tim, that nobody else could tell me what I could and couldn’t do. And that’s something that ac­tu­ally las­ted throughout my med­ic­al ca­reer, too. The reas­on that I did so many things that hadn’t been done be­fore is be­cause I didn’t listen to the people who said, ‘You can’t do that.’”

J. Wyn­dal Gor­don, a tri­al law­yer seated at the table, did not let that an­ec­dote lay pat for long.

“Your sug­ges­tion to this young man is to sup­press all the an­guish and pain he feels by read­ing some kind of book,” Gor­don said.

“What I told him is what I did,” Car­son re­spon­ded.

“Well, you told him that so he could use that as an ex­ample of what he could do,” Gor­don said. “You’re just on the sur­face, and you have to dig a little deep­er. If you dig a little deep­er, you’ll un­der­stand the source of the pain. It didn’t come from the up­ris­ing in Bal­timore. It was there be­fore that.”

Ibrahim Au­guste, a 21-year-old stu­dent at the Com­munity Col­lege of Bal­timore County, later asked Car­son what he should do about be­ing pro­filed by po­lice. Car­son re­turned to em­phas­iz­ing the need for a “can-do at­ti­tude” and not let­ting your­self be­come a vic­tim. Au­guste was not sat­is­fied with that an­swer.

“If you tell someone to sup­press their feel­ings and their is­sues of real­ity, and you talk about be­ing prac­tic­al, what hap­pens when they come back from fairy­land, and the prob­lems and is­sues are still very real?” Au­guste later replied. “You come back home, and home is still des­troyed, still trashed, still over­run, still what it is?”

“There were a lot of people who grew up around me, who went through the same things that I went through, and ad­op­ted a very dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude. And it didn’t end up well for them,” Car­son said. “We don’t have to be vic­tims. We don’t have to be some­body that some­body else has to do something for. We have enorm­ous abil­ity and will­power. Not every­body has it, but most people. And I think we need to be en­cour­aging people about what they can do more than what they can’t do.”

This type of “re­spect­ab­il­ity polit­ics”—that if only black pro­test­ers would be peace­ful, stop loot­ing, stop set­ting cars on fire, and pull up their pants, these prob­lems would go away—may earn nods from older Bal­timoreans and eye rolls from the young­er res­id­ents who have been protest­ing.

“A lot of the people protest­ing, they don’t know what they want,” Au­guste told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “They’re like, ‘Oh, we’ve got our hands up, don’t shoot us,’ but you’ve had your hands up for 400 years, and you’re still get­ting shot.”

Some at­tendees were just happy Car­son showed up. It’s more than can be said for the ma­jor­ity of pres­id­en­tial con­tenders, with the ex­cep­tion of likely can­did­ate Mar­tin O’Mal­ley.

“I think it’s im­port­ant that he’s com­ing to listen. Listen­ing is a great skill for lead­er­ship,” An­dré Turn­er, who leads a pro­gram to help ment­or young men in Bal­timore, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Lead­ers listen, and then they re­cycle the in­form­a­tion and they give it back to the com­munity. For me, I think what Car­son is do­ing is cre­at­ing a for­um to listen so he can re­cycle and re­pur­pose that and put a plan to­geth­er.”

Dur­ing the meet­ing, Car­son made an earn­est ef­fort to hear what people were say­ing and ap­peared to take it in­to ac­count. But oth­er at­tendees were less sat­is­fied with what he had to of­fer.

Gor­don, who de­scribes him­self as fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive and lib­er­al on in­di­vidu­al rights, said he was not im­pressed with Car­son’s de­liv­ery on Thursday. Rather than fo­cus­ing on the out­comes of in­grained ra­cial pre­ju­dice—loot­ing, ri­ot­ing—Gor­don said Car­son should fo­cus on dia­gnos­ing the un­der­ly­ing causes.

“This isn’t the cause of us be­ing here. This is an ef­fect. What he’s ac­tu­ally see­ing is an ef­fect of dec­ades and dec­ades, and gen­er­a­tions and gen­er­a­tions, of a lack of op­por­tun­ity,” Gor­don told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Don’t use our com­munity as a whip­ping boy.”

Be­ing the only prom­in­ent black pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate in 2016, it’s hard for Car­son to re­ject calls for him to be the face of ra­cial pain in this coun­try. It’s also a role he is ex­tremely wary of oc­cupy­ing. In that re­spect, if noth­ing else, Car­son has something in com­mon with Barack Obama.

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