Ben Carson and Black Politics in the GOP

—Andra Gillespie

So, the inevitable finally happened. After a string of primaries and caucuses where he never finished higher than 4th, never won more than 11% of the Republican vote, and only won a handful of delegates, Ben Carson finally conceded that he doesn’t “see a political path forward” for his campaign.

The handwriting has been on the wall a long time for this campaign. Carson polled in the top tier among candidates in late summer and early fall, even topping some polls in September and October. But he was no match for the bombastic Donald Trump, and his inexperience and seeming lack of knowledge about foreign affairs damaged his credibility greatly, especially after the Paris Bombing attacks. While Carson still stayed in second place for the first few weeks after the attacks, his poll numbers were clearly in free fall by Thanksgiving.

We’ll never know for sure if Carson would have fared better in a Trump-less primary. However, we do know that other candidates have surged prematurely only to exit early (i.e. Rudolph Giuliani, Michele Bachmann). Carson just delayed the inevitable.

Like many also-rans before him, Carson now becomes an asterisk in the Republican Party’s primary election history. However, for scholars of race, we now have an opportunity to reflect on the significance of his candidacy for understanding the politics of race both within the GOP and nationally. Carson is by no means the first black to run for the Republican nomination for president. In the last five presidential cycles, two other blacks have also run for the Republican nomination for president (Alan Keyes and Herman Cain). And the diversity of this year’s Republican contenders, with an African American, a South Asian American, two Cuban Americans, and a white woman, was a sharp contrast to the Democratic contenders, which featured gender but not racial diversity.

But what did that diversity mean for the substantive discussion of racial issues, particularly as it related to blacks? To be fair, Carson did not completely ignore racial issues. After the Charleston Massacre, he wrote an op-ed for USA Today in which he clearly recognized that the shooter was motivated by racism.

However, he was not on the vanguard when it came to confronting issues of inequality. One of the most salient issues for blacks today is criminal justice and policing reform. If you had to name a Republican candidate (of the original 17) who spoke regularly about that issue in support of African Americans, most observers would probably identify Rand Paul before they would mention Ben Carson. And while other prominent black Republicans (i.e. Tim Scott, JC Watts, Thomas Sowell and Tara Setmayer) have condemned Donald Trump for not immediately disavowing David Duke’s endorsement, I’m still looking for Carson’s visceral response.

To be fair, Carson did contribute to the debate about policing. After Freddie Gray died in Baltimore, Carson used his experience as a neurosurgeon to suggest that Gray may have been a victim of direct trauma, not just a bumpy ride in a police van. He called for objective, community policing to promote trust and collegiality between residents and officers. But, he criticized rioting, calling it “senseless” and noting that it destroyed the infrastructure in blacks’ own communities. And he intimated that the charges that Baltimore D.A. Marilyn Mosby levied against the officers implicated in Gray’s case were excessive.

The question is whether people listened more when he defended blacks or when he appeared to stand in opposition to his community. Take that Charleston op-ed, for instance. As of 11:40 a.m. on March 3, 2016, when I am writing, this piece had been reposted on Facebook 6654 times and had 164 comments. When Carson wrote another USA Today op-ed criticizing Black Lives Matter protesters who booed Bernie Sanders for saying that “all lives matter,” his piece was reposted on Facebook 155,287 times and garnered 646 comments.

This suggests that Carson found himself in a really awkward position. As the lone black presidential candidate in a party that is still struggling to attract black voters, his descriptive diversity was welcome. While race was not the focal point of his campaign, he did talk about it on occasion. He garnered attention for publicly challenging blacks. When he defended them, he was less likely to go viral.

Given the Trump/KKK controversy, it is very clear that race is at the heart of this fight for the soul of the Republican Party. Carson, however, will likely not play as prominent a role in that debate as other black Republicans. Not only will his placid temperament likely lead him away from such difficult discussions, his own supporters may not expect and probably will not encourage him to become a leading gadfly on these issues.

 Andra Gillespie is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Emory University. She is the author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).