I have a particular position on Ben Carson and his appeal in the Republican Party. I’ve had it for a long time — long before he became a front runner. It is all about racism, but not in the way you might think. Everyone is racist to one extent or another. As a species, we are programmed to be afraid of other tribes. And that is really what racism is at its base. So very few people are racists in the way that the people in Mississippi Burning were racists. Very few people think of themselves as racist. Yet their subconscious outs them.
Consider me. I don’t think of myself as a racist. Yet when I took an Implicit Association Test for subconscious bias, my result was, “Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for European American compared to African American.” This is not surprising. I’ve lived in a deeply racist society my entire life. I’ve watched the television news where black men are over represented as criminal suspects. I’ve known almost no African Americans in my life and I have no African American friends. It is not surprising that I have an instinctual preference for white people. But knowing this, I try really hard to fight these lower brain impulses with my higher brain.
What bothers me is that I hear people claim that they are not racists. They treat everyone the same. This is especially true of conservatives. Yet when they take the test, they usually deny that it says anything about them. And that brings us to Ben Carson. He flatters conservatives. They know that they aren’t racists. If only African Americans would act more “white” then there wouldn’t be a problem. This is a common belief that racism is about skin color and not what it actually is: a particular group that skin color is used as a signifier.
So Ben Carson goes before our conservative friends and says, “You aren’t racist, because you like me!” But they wouldn’t like Carson if he didn’t tell them that they are just fine. They aren’t doing well because they are white and they have had a huge cultural and monetary advantage that depends up hundreds of years of slavery and then Jim Crow and then redlining. So Ben Carson doubles their pleasure. First, conservatives are voting for a black man, which must mean they aren’t racists. Second, he denies that they are racists by claiming there are very good (non-racist) reasons for wanting to screw poor and middle class African Americans.
Brian Beutler wrote an interesting article along these lines, The Superficiality of the Republican Commitment to Racial Justice. It’s mostly about tokenism. Republicans think that they don’t have a racism problem between, hey, they have African American candidates! But I was especially struck by what he had to say about Carson:
Needless to say, the fact that Republican voters like a guy who tells them that other black people — the ones who support Democrats — are like plantation slaves doesn’t harm the liberal critique of conservative racial politics at all. Nor does it cancel out or refute the existence of racism.
So yes: Ben Carson is also a racist and would undoubtedly score the same on the Implicit Association Test as I did. But even more than that, the fact that he is black allows him to pander to the racism of Republican voters even more than the white politicians. That’s a nifty trick.