From the moment he surfaced in 2013 as White conservatives’ latest ‘Great Black Hope,’ Ben Carson has made any number of offensive remarks typical of the conservative commentary of the Obama years.
But early last week, apparently goaded by a GOP presidential primary that’s set a cesspool-level standard for expressions of bigotry and callousness, Carson released what is undoubtedly his greatest hit: He said a Muslim American should not be president of the United States.
“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press. Reminded that Article 6 of the Constitution explicitly demands there be no religious qualification to hold “any office or public trust in the United States,” Carson doubled down that Americans should “not put people at the leadership of our country whose faith might interfere with carrying out the duties of the Constitution.”
Carson apparently didn’t see the irony in the fact that he, a candidate for the nation’s highest office, was declaring he’d put his personal beliefs above the Constitution.
The blowback for that idiocy was so scorching that at week’s end Carson tried to gin up a ‘new’ controversy to push his blatant appeal to bigotry into the background: he resorted to the old Black-conservative stand-by of claiming that the GOP had done a better job ridding American society of racism than the Democratic Party.
But we can’t afford to ignore just how despicable Carson’s gambit was. For one thing, just what kind of Muslim American individual does Ben Carson think would surface as a potential candidate for the presidency?
We don’t have to guess. We have plenty of ‘real’ Americans of the past and present to tell us what our future Muslim American candidate will be like: Like John F. Kennedy, who broke the barrier against Catholic candidates running for the presidency; or like Colin Powell; or Condoleezza Rice; or Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, or her colleague, Ruth Bader Ginsburg; or Barack or Michelle Obama; or, yes, like Ben Carson. In other words, our future Muslim American candidate will have followed a very traditional route to spectacular high achievement—and have shown along the way he or she is ‘twice as good’ as his or her non-Muslim American peers.
Of course, Carson knows this. But his despicable comment is perfectly in keeping with his record of pandering to the worst attitudes that infect the GOP electorate, especially those White evangelicals who use his Black face and their shared reactionary attitudes masquerading as religious belief to shield their many prejudices from view.
That noxious combination is the basis of Carson’s appeal. It’s certainly not his policy prescriptions for domestic or foreign-policy matters. Despite having been in the presidency-seeking game for two years, the grasp he’s displayed of those issues is laughable. Carson, like Donald Trump, can get away with this because a huge number of GOP voters have shown they care far less about the issues than about who can best spout the ‘politically correct’ extremist ideology.
Carson’s trashing of Muslim Americans is, of course, the more despicable because he’s a Black American who, growing up when many White Americans didn’t consider Blacks deserving of citizenship, gained fame by recording several remarkable ‘the-first-Black-to-ever’ achievements. Now, parroting the racists of the past, he declares an entire American group doesn’t meet his definition of ‘real’ Americans.
That Trump and Carson top the pecking order of the GOP presidential primary is a measure of how advanced the disintegration of the respectability of the Republican Party has become—a fact underscored by last week’s surprise announcement from House Speaker John Boehner that he’ll resign entirely from Congress next month. Boehner’s decision headed off a move to topple him by the most extreme members of the House’s Republican Party majority: Representatives who think as Ben Carson does.
Finally, Carson’s bigotry also illuminates what that White-created political identity called ‘Black conservatism’ really is: a tinny reflection of their masters’ voices. His words show there’s nothing within so-called Black conservatism that reflects the fundamental lesson Black Americans have drawn from the long, heroic Black freedom struggle: That is that you cannot with any degree of integrity claim liberty for your kind while denying it to others who are different.
His ugly hypocrisy proves that Ben Carson does truly reflect his White-conservative supporters. But that doesn’t mean he’s an ‘Oreo.’ No, indeed. Ben Carson’s problem is not that he’s ‘White’ on the inside. His problem is that he’s White-racist on the inside.
(Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, ‘Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,’ appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at .)