How Ben Carson went from black hero to Republican presidential candidate

by Jenée Desmond-Harris

Ben Carson told a Florida TV station Sunday night that he’ll formally announce his campaign for the White House, saying “I’m willing to be part of the equation and therefore, I’m announcing my candidacy for president of the United States of America.”

The official announcement is expected to come Monday at the Detroit Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts.

Those who’ve heard him speak before know what to anticipate as he formally introduces himself to America: a single-paragraph summary of Ben Carson’s life story can — and does — electrify a room.

When Carson’s business manager, Armstrong Williams, introduced the adored African-American doctor at January’s South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention, a short biography brought the crowd to its feet:

“He is here! One of the greatest rags-to-riches stories ever produced in America, a young boy born in Detroit, Michigan, in abject poverty, who was able to become a scholar, and took that, in this place known as America, to become a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, rarely losing a case. His gifts, they come from God and not from man! Ladies and gentlemen, the pediatric neurosurgeon, Doctor Benjamin Solomon Carson!”

The brown-skinned, salt-and-pepper-haired, bespectacled 63-year-old approached the podium to deliver his keynote address. His biggest supporters, decked out in T-shirts and waving banners bearing his name, chanted, “Run, Ben, run!” — the mantra they hope will goad him toward entering the 2016 presidential race.

Carson was on message. He covered fairly predictable far-right policy positions on abortion, taxes, and the Middle East. He included his signature proclamation: “I’m not politically correct!” But it was the well-worn personal narrative that anchored the remarks. He opened, as he began his 1996 autobiography Gifted Hands, by talking about his mother, who, he told the rapt audience, was one of 24 children (“Wow!” the crowd replied) and got married when she was 13 (“Ooh!”), and, after leaving her bigamist husband, supported her family with two to three jobs at a time. She “accepted some assistance” Carson said, admitting that his family received some of the government “entitlements” that are anathema to many Tea Party members. But for the most part, he reassured them, “she wanted to be independent.”

Carson’s audience has shifted over the years, from African-American families to staunch conservatives

He said, “I believe in a safety net, but I do not believe in a system that chronically places people in a state of dependency.”

The moral of the story, which inspired another round of thunderous applause, was the very same point Carson has been making for decades, now woven around a socially conservative political philosophy: “The person who has most to do with what happens in your life is you!”

Carson’s audience has shifted dramatically over the years, from African-American families who found personal inspiration in his story to staunch conservatives who have pinned their hopes for the country’s salvation on his possible presidential run. And while his own values and accompanying talking points have remained consistent regardless of who is listening, Carson has nonetheless undergone a transformation — from black folk hero to Tea Party star.

It’s a reflection of not only Carson’s own personal charisma, but of the conservative movement’s struggle to sell an anti–big government and pro-personal responsibility message to a more diverse swath of Americans.

So as the field of 2016 Republican presidential contenders began to take shape early this year, Carson’s supporters were in full draft mode, hoping he’d take the same message he’s delivered for years to African-American audiences and repurpose it — this time speaking as a Tea Party purist, to Southern ballrooms filled with mostly white faces, and beyond. With his announcement from Detroit, they’ll have what they wished for.

Same story, different audience

Carson rose to fame in 1987 for his groundbreaking work separating conjoined twins. But it wasn’t until his headline-grabbing criticism of Obamacare at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast that he was pegged as a presidential possibility. His political supporters — many of whom say this was their first introduction to him — remember that he was standing just feet away from President Obama when he blasted the country’s runaway health-care spending and offered his own solution for how to fix the system. Carson earned the enthusiasm of even more conservative fans when he later deemed the health-care law “the worst thing that has happened to this nation since slavery” at the October 2013 Values Voters Summit.


Last year, Carson came up second in a CNN/ORC poll ranking all likely Republican presidential hopefuls. This wasn’t a fluke: in later polling, he’s consistently ranked among the top four contenders. According to Steve Arnold, the Southeast regional director of the Carson PAC, the group has raised more than $12 million from 150,000 people and organized 25,000 volunteers ready to spring to action to support Carson’s candidacy.

The source of the enthusiasm is clear. While the Prayer Breakfast comments elevated Carson’s profile, it’s his biography that motivates his supporters.

Ask any of Carson’s devotees why the soft-spoken doctor with no political experience would make a good president, and you’ll inevitably hear veneration of his faith, his character, and, most of all, the made-for-Hollywood narrative arc of his life.

A pamphlet published by the Draft Ben Carson PAC leaves no question that this tale is his main selling point. Under the heading, “Ben Carson is What America Is all About,” it reads:

“Ben Carson grew up in dire poverty. He was called dummy by his classmates, and he had a terrible temper. But Dr. Carson’s mother did not give up on him. His mother worked as a domestic, cleaning other people’s homes, noting that many of these homes had large collections of books. After praying about it, this single mother turned off the TV and required her two sons to read two books a week and write reviews for her.”

That story is the well-worn beginning of the motivational tale that is Carson’s life.

For more than two decades, he’s been strikingly consistent in how he talks about his biography. But his audience is different now than it was when his best-selling book was published, or when it became a feature film in 2009. Very different.

Today the crowds that hang on his every word — who spin his story into hope for the future — are mostly white, mostly older Tea Partyers. It was tough to spot a person of color or a person younger than 40 in the crowd when he delivered his keynote address at the convention in Myrtle Beach.

But in recent memory, his devotees were almost entirely African-Americans focused on upward mobility — people looking to his story for personal, not political, inspiration.

“A whole generation of black parents told their children about him, wanted their sons to be like him, wanted their daughters to marry him,” Run Ben Run campaign director Vernon Robinson, who himself is black and is responsible for helping raise more than $12 million so far for the Draft Carson PAC, said.

He’s right. Carson’s autobiography, Gifted Hands, was required reading and made Carson into a (black) household name and a fixture of African-American History Month presentations.

Carson receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2008. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

The PAC acknowledges as much in a brochure. It makes the case that Carson, unlike other Republican presidential hopefuls, and even unlike his black Tea Party predecessor, Herman Cain, would be uniquely qualified to capture the 17 percent of the black votethat political strategists theorize Republicans would need to take from Democrats in order to win a general election. “While Mr. Cain is respected in the African-American community, Dr. Carson is revered,” it reads. “He is held up as a shining example of someone who rose up from one of the worst areas in Detroit to become the most widely respected neurosurgeon in the world.”

Mark Hatcher, a 33-year-old Howard University PhD candidate in physiology and biophysics, isn’t a Carson supporter today, but he vividly remembers how Gifted Handsaffected him when he read it as a 15-year-old growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The doctor’s story provided an early blueprint for his career. “I walked past it in a bookstore,” he recalled. “I saw a brown person in a surgical outfit and thought, ‘I need to have this book. That could be me!'”

He said he absorbed the tale of Carson’s hardscrabble start, his life-changing forced book reports, and his life-saving achievements and concluded, “This is somebody I can look up to and want to be like. This is exactly the path I want to follow.” And he did.

Hatcher is not alone. A 1999 Amazon review of the book raves, “When I began reading this book, I was almost ready to give up on my career and my education. This book literally changed my whole perception of my life! I absolutely love this book! Being a young African-American woman from the same type of background as Ben Carson, I realized that if I focus on my faith and my God-given talents I could do anything I want. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who needs a little motivation.”

“A whole generation of black parents told their children about him, wanted their sons to be like him”

Another user gives the film version the highest possible rating, writing in 2009, “This is a story that is inspiring to all ages. My husband and I were able to watch it with our son and discuss the choices that Ben Carson had to make in his life. We were then blessed to be able to take him to hear Dr. Carson speak live at one of our local universities … I would especially recommend this movie to be seen by all young Black boys and teens to show them that no matter what society or life may throw your way, you can still overcome your circumstances if you apply yourself and make positive choices.”

Jay Mace, a black 63-year-old minister from Somerville, South Carolina, who attended the January conference primarily to hear Carson speak, said, “He’s at the top of my list of heroes.” After pushing the book and film versions of Gifted Hands on kids in his congregation and community for the past 15 years, and using the doctor’s tale in his sermons, he can now rattle off stories of mentees who are “doing really well for themselves” — a testimony, in his view, to the neurosurgeon’s motivational influence.

“All young people need to hear Dr. Ben Carson’s story,” he said. “All black people, all people period, anyone who has low self-esteem or is discouraged. He should encourage any young child that they can be somebody. These are the stories we need.”

A bizarre transition

The recent shift in the audience for Carson’s life story is remarkable.

Carson, once a hero whose race was a key part of his motivational influence for his primary fan base, has now been embraced by a group whose reputation when it comes to diversity and ability to relate to nonwhite voters is troubled, to put it mildly.

The transition from African-American hero to Tea Party darling was gradual, and seamless. It’s not even clear when exactly Carson embraced the idea of a possible political career, and that’s in part because what he says when he’s behind a podium — and what people say when they describe his life story — hasn’t really changed. His biography needed no edits to shift his audience from “all young black boys and teens” to a hotel ballroom full of far-right political junkies.

Maybe that’s no surprise. “He’s an attractive guy, he’s a straight-shooter, and he has a Horatio Alger story,” said Robinson, the Run Ben Run director.

Still, it’s amazing to watch as his narrative transforms in the eyes of this new audience — with his encouragement — from an inspirational personal tale to a political one.

It takes only the tiniest spin. Carson simply pins his famous life lessons to policy positions. He takes something that it’s easy to imagine him saying in remarks two decades ago, in a pep talk to underprivileged middle school students (“Nothing is possible until you do it, and then it’s possible”), and adds, “Come on, this is America. We don’t sit around thinking about what we can’t do. We think about what, by the grace of God, we are able to do.” And while his message was always underscored by conservative principles of self-reliance, now it’s explicitly political in its dismissal of the “excuses” made by the poor, and the role of structural racism: “Progressives want to tell you how many things are impossible,” he said. “Even if Al Sharpton tells you you’re a victim, you’re not a victim.”

(Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

His message to the black community was about what you can do for yourself. His message in politics is about what we, as a society, should — and, more important, should not — do for others.

Suddenly, with this shift — from talking about individual lives to addressing collective policy — the story has an entirely different effect. Carson is able to square a circle that conservatives desperately want squared: to cut social spending but also to be seen as the party helping the poor. Typically, those two things are seen as fundamentally contradictory. But this poor black kid turned voracious reader turned neurosurgeon has the credibility to argue that they are actually complementary: that welfare dependency is what’s holding back the poor from taking control of their own lives, which is, in America, the only way to truly get ahead. When Paul Ryan makes that argument — and he does — it’s laughably unconvincing. Coming from Carson, it passes the straight-face test, or at least it seems to for many listeners.

What was a tale about perseverance is now an argument for a right-wing vision of America. It’s not hard to see why it’s so appealing to the Tea Party. How can Hillary Clinton stand up and tell Carson he doesn’t know what it takes to escape poverty?

And Carson’s story has a remarkable emotional effect on his new constituency: they’re as impressed as black kids used to be about what Carson’s story can mean for the possibilities of their future.

“What attracts me is his mother comes from a family of 24,” said Martin Kolar, a 71-year-old Navy veteran and retired advertising-industry executive from Myrtle Beach. “It goes to show that if you have a dream and fulfill that dream, it can be done.”

Black teens like Hatcher looked at Carson and thought, “This is somebody I can look up to and want to be like. This is exactly the path I want to follow.” Similarly, white, right-wing political types “see something there they can attach to — it’s demonstrated character over time,” said Arnold, from the Carson PAC.

Carson’s supporters salivate over Carson’s life story and are eager to retell it in their own ways. Carson “was a nasty thug in school … He read himself right into Yale and the head of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins,” said John Phillip Sousa IV, who registered the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee Super PAC, in a December 2014 interview with CNN. Now, Carson never actually said he was a “nasty thug” — although he did admit to struggling with anger — but his irresistible story has now taken on a life of its own and has begun to be gently molded to suit the worldview of his new fan base.

How can Hillary Clinton stand up and tell Carson he doesn’t know what it takes to escape poverty?

Republicans are often accused of using token black candidates in clumsy efforts to repair a bad diversity track record. But Carson’s supporters — at least at the grassroots level — are strikingly, disarmingly, sincere.

Bert Bernadette, a 90-year-old, Charlotte, South Carolina, man, was able to get Carson’s attention after his Myrtle Beach remarks and showed him pictures of the massive three-dimensional American flags he constructs using empty milk jugs painted red, white, and blue. He said he supports Carson for three reasons. “One, he’s humble; two, he’s a caring man that’s above all politics; three, he’s an accomplished man who can get things done.”

Peggy Kemmerly, 72, of Elongee, South Carolina, spoke for herself and her husband, when she raved, “We love Dr. Ben!” After reading three of his books, she said, “We know more about Ben Carson than any other candidate.”

“We’re here for Carson,” not the Tea Party, her 78-year-old husband, Fred, added.

And when it comes to Carson’s race, there’s no indication that these individual supporters are thinking strategically about the way their party will pitch their chosen candidate to minority voters. Quite the opposite, actually. When they do talk about Carson’s race, it’s as an afterthought of the decidedly non-politically correct kind that Carson would support.

Kolar said he’s eager to strip him of the “African-American” part of his former life as an African-American hero. “I hope he removes the hyphen,” he said. “Not African-American, just American, to heal the racial divide we’ve been forced into. My hope was that Obama would bring that about, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.”

“He would be a wonderful role model for everyone, especially for the black people,” Peggy Kemmerly said. “You know, to get them off entitlements. He could open doors. Well, doors have been opened for them, but unfortunately they haven’t accessed them.”

A shift that’s striking but not surprising

There’s no question about it: comments like Kemmerly’s about the need for role models hit you a little differently coming from a white right-winger than they do when they come from a black parent who’s embraced the message of Gifted Hands for her son and is raving in an Amazon review about the transformative power of the book.

Carson’s association with people like Kemmerly and their political outlook is off-putting to some of his former devotees.

Hatcher, the PhD candidate who made Carson his educational role model, said his former hero’s new conservative rhetoric turns him off, in a way that reminded him of when a college administrator — coincidentally, at Johns Hopkins, where Carson performed some of his famous surgeries — disparaged the people who lived in the predominantly black city surrounding the school during his admission interview.

Carson gets an ovation at a fundraiser in August. (Scott Morgan for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“I remember the interviewer said something like, ‘I know we’re in a part of Baltimore that seems a little rough, but you don’t have to worry about those people. We’re really secure here,'” Hatcher recalls. He says he remembers thinking, “I am those people. How dare you?”

Hatcher reacts similarly when he hears Carson’s political commentary, especially the parts slamming entitlements and dismissing the role of structural racism, which he reads as unsympathetic to poor and black people. For example, in his 2012 book America the Beautiful, Carson writes, “The Bible makes it clear that we have a responsibility to be kind to the poor among us. [But] America did not become a great nation by encouraging people to feel sorry for themselves and seek handouts from others.” Hatcher’s response to his former hero: “How dare you, sir?”

The tension between the language of black aspiration narratives and theories about cultural pathology are not new. Public figures, black and white alike, regularly toss off comments about the so-called deficiencies in African-American culture and offer homespun theories on how to fix them. And the public, especially members of the black community, often responds to that framing of inequality — which, in the eyes of many, is an irresponsible rewriting of Americans’ racist history — with frustration.

In a radio interview last year, US Congressman and former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan disparaged what he called “inner-city” laziness. He said, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

Ryan’s remarks were swiftly dubbed a racist “dog whistle” meant to send a critical message about African Americans without actually mentioning race. Mic headlined itsresponse “Paul Ryan’s Racist Comments Are a Slap in the Face to 10.5 Million Americans.”

Ryan was just the latest in a long line of prominent people making similar comments. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote at the Atlantic, “What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are ‘not holding up their end of the deal’ as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing.”

In a similar reaction at the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb argued, “It has been Obama’s consistent habit to douse moments of black achievement with soggy moralizing.”

Hatcher said his former hero’s new conservative rhetoric turns him off: “How dare you, sir?”

He’s right. In 2008, then-candidate Obama jokingly paired stereotypical black names and apathetic, irresponsible behavior as he urged African Americans to get involved in politics. He said, “If Cousin Pookie would vote, if Uncle Jethro would get off the couch and stop watching SportsCenter and go register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics.”

In light of these widespread beliefs about the shortcomings of all but the most exceptional black people, it’s no surprise that it didn’t take much to transform Carson’s story from a personal pep talk to a stump speech for conservative policies. It’s no surprise that it evolved so seamlessly from a Horatio Alger tale that comforted and motivated the most disadvantaged Americans to a story that captures the imaginations of the most conservative.

What is remarkable is that this one man, with one story, has been a vehicle for two messages that are so radically different.

Gifted Hands starts out with an introduction by Carson’s mother, Sonya Carson, in which she quotes a poem that she says guided her life. It’s called “Yourself to Blame,” and its final stanza is “You’re the captain of your ship / So agree with the same­­ / If you travel downward / You have yourself to blame.”

It’s a message that, according to Carson, has guided his life. And his second act is proof that what that means just depends on who’s listening and what they want to hear.



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