A young black man raised by a single mother in Detroit survives a close brush with the criminal justice system. He stays in school, works hard and performs well. Turning down an offer from West Point, he attends Yale. From there he attends medical school and completes his residency in the country’s most prestigious program at Johns Hopkins. He goes on to become the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins connected at the head.
Dr. Ben Carson’s feel-good story is taking a dark turn as he leverages his biography into a disturbing and occasionally batty political campaign. He has built a following on the far right with the message that struggling African-American communities have only themselves to blame. If blacks had not been corrupted by the social safety net then they might display the moral rectitude that would lead to prosperity. For Carson, the push for social justice and civil rights is a distraction from the real issue – black moral failures.
As just another daffy candidate in the Republican Presidential clown car Carson will play his assigned role and move off the stage. However, seen through a social lens Ben Carson becomes far more interesting – and tragic.
His climb to success and his subsequent troubling choices illustrate the dilemmas facing those who struggle out of humble beginnings. Success can spawn painful tensions, creating a complicated relationship between a young person on the rise and the community from which they emerge. Dr. Carson’s political choices shed light on the struggles that accompany individual social mobility in our culture.
Carson presents a gentle, fatherly public persona, a style completely at odds with the ugly ideas he has embraced. Being black and a doctor is perhaps not enough to make someone famous. Being a black brain surgeon willing to endorse far right views on race is a different proposition altogether.
According to the good doctor, black folks’ problems have nothing to do with discrimination or racism. Instead, they are burdened by a nasty social welfare system designed to trap them on a modern version of what he has described as a “plantation.”
Food stamps, welfare, and other government “hand-outs” supposedly corrupt morality, destroy families, and engender “dependence” that cripples black communities. He has embraced a racist stereotype older than the Civil War. Plantation owners argued that black people would rot if turned loose from the ennobling structure of forced labor. It was an argument perhaps best stated by a Virginia legislator in 1832, “The free black will work nowhere except by compulsion.” Carson parrots that age-old formula, lending his own blackness and success as cudgels against fellow African-Americans.
Needless to say, the far-right can’t get enough of Ben Carson. There is nothing a racist loves more than a black man who agrees with him. But Carson has had to ignore his own personal history to arrive at this feat.
Questioning the value and structure of the welfare state is unremarkable. Republicans and Democrats have done this consistently for decades. That’s not what Carson is doing. By embracing the far-right’s plantation rhetoric he is equating the entire social safety net with the darkest episode of oppression in our history while trivializing the black community’s most painful trauma. All this from a guy who probably would not have finished school without the welfare state.
This is where the story gets really nasty. Never mind all the bootstrappy rhetoric about what he accomplished on his own. Dr. Ben Carson is the poster-child of the very welfare state he is working to demolish.
As a kid in the sixties, Carson’s family survived on a raft of brand-new government programs. He would benefit from welfare, food stamps, free public education, college grants, affirmative action, federal non-discrimination laws, and federally subsidized student loans. You know, the “plantation” of “dependence.” That matrix of public support helps explain why he and his brother were able to complete an education and go on to success while his mother’s generation of the family, growing up without that support, endured grinding poverty and did not complete school.
In light of Carson’s own experience with the welfare state his ridiculous plantation rhetoric makes him look far worse than just wrongheaded, opportunistic, or nuts. He sounds like an asshole. However, viewed in a wider context, perhaps Carson deserves a little slack.
Escaping from childhood poverty creates mental strains that few people comprehend. Rising beyond the achievements of the people around you breaks critical social ties. That break creates dissonance in your understanding of who you are and where you fit in the world. To continue to be successful a kid must somehow sustain that dissonance, a mentally taxing weight to bear that has consequences over time.
The welfare state in Carson’s time was playing a major role in lifting his community out of the poverty that crushed a previous generation. Out of that environment, a young Carson was leveraging his talent and government support to rise at a far faster pace than his peers. One might expect that the successful child of the ghetto achieves a form of leadership status back on the block, but that is not how the dynamics play out. In a ghetto, a poor farm community, or a factory town, achievement fosters conflict internally and externally.
Each step toward success raises new tension with former peers. Long after someone has left that world behind, the hostility they faced remains almost tangible. The bathroom beatings, the stolen books, the hateful stares, the resentment that the increasingly successful kid feels as his life becomes more and more different from his peers. Alongside the guilt of survival comes anger toward those who stood in the way.
Succeeding in such an environment means living a life under siege, in constant strain and frequent fear. Defining an identity in that climate is extremely difficult. For black achievers that difficulty is particularly sharp. A young Irish kid from Southie or a white kid from the Appalachians can clean up his accent and get through his day without necessarily being assigned an identity that no longer fits his understanding of himself. He can “pass.” For a young black professional that is a very difficult move to execute.
Low-income students with high SAT scores are about half as likely to finish college as their more affluent peers. That’s despite massive financial aid and significant efforts by colleges to identify and assist those students. Missing from the efforts to support these kids is an awareness of what they experience. Being plucked out of their environment into a brand new, completely unfamiliar social sphere is a disorienting mental challenge. Combined with relentless financial pressures and family trouble, it is more pressure than most kids can sustain.
Many who make it through college flame out later under the perverse tension of success. Being different is difficult even when that difference is defined by achievement. Advancement is lonely.
One way to resolve the dissonance is with a forceful, deliberate break from the past. Some take comfort in the notion that they are inherently better than the people and the place that created them. One can easily internalize the taunt that ‘you are not one of us’ and convert it into a badge, or even a battle cry. Anger can deliver the energy it takes to break the sound barrier that blocks success. That anger can leave a kid blind to the contributions of others who helped him or her succeed.
Whether the community is a blue collar refinery town, a ghetto, or an isolated rural outpost, no one escapes without heavy contributions from people left behind. Some of those contributions might be invisible – a gang member who intervenes behind the scenes to protect a promising honor student, the union foreman who offers a kid part time work in a phony job that leaves him time to study, the teacher, janitor, case worker, pastor or random friend of the family who made a sacrifice that the kid will never even discover. Or it might be the welfare state, an institution you loathe because of what is says about you. An institution whose role in your survival you resent.
Sometimes the successful adult revisits those memories and discovers a kind of humility and gratitude that brings them peace. Sometimes, instead, they discover an arrogant and bigoted template of religious beliefs that convince them they owe nothing to anyone but the God who rewarded them for their special merit. People make choices.
At the pinnacle of his achievement, Dr. Ben Carson has made a choice to align himself with forces that would have destroyed his own route to success. He sees no moral tension in the opportunistic ways he has fed a racist political movement; reinforcing the narrative that absolves his white audience by blaming black suffering on the supposedly poor morals of those left behind. He has resolved the dissonance inherent in breakthrough-success by ignoring the so-called ‘liberal plantation’ that kept him fed and educated, crediting his success to his own superior religious faith. People make choices.
In the long run Carson may not matter much politically, but there is a lot we can learn from his experience with social mobility. If we want to see more kids from troubled backgrounds emulate his academic and professional achievements we need to better recognize the full range of difficulties they face. As for the good doctor himself, there is reason to expect that the loneliness of a courageous rise will be followed by the loneliness of an isolating arrogance. Despite his ugly political choices it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the guy.