BOSTON—Within the generally disconcerting milieu of the political disorientation that now shrouds the Trump administration, some African Americans actually thought that newly minted Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson would provide at least a modicum of access on their behalf.
Some blacks cleverly assumed that Carson would give them a slight inside track that, in turn, would give them a “voice” during Trump’s tenure in office ― that Carson could keep the door open for dialogue and policy influence ― especially among the extremists that populate the president’s current crooked circle of advisors. Alas, It was calculated that Carson could be relied upon to deliver whatever urgent message that “black America” needed to channel — conveying their sufferings, concerns and policy interests into the highest offices of the federal government.
Well, not so much. Such black political pragmatism recently collapsed upon itself and the hope was that Carson would serve as a door ― maybe a backdoor ― to championing African-American social and political affairs are now essentially dashed.
Sadly, the possibility that Carson could function as a reliable conduit got reduced to an ashy substance on the secretary’s first day on the job Monday, as he made racially egregious remarks that compared the current roiling immigrant issues that president Trump has raised in recent months to slavery policies imposed on blacks that raged for more than 200 years.
The collective cringing of a legion of black folks could be heard across the nation as they watched Carson try to merge the narratives of our U.S. immigration policies within the tragic and narrow sleeves of the trans-Atlantic slavery story. What’s worse? Carson seemed insistent upon fitting the horrid American practices endured by slaves into a mythic wishing to achieve the “American dream” ― Reverend Martin Luther King style.
Come to think about it, Carson’s stunt fits perfectly into the shambolic world that Trump has created of our national civic life, a place where history is denied, suffering is marginalized and hope pressed into a corner in the interest of the strong and powerful.
But we all knew ― especially we in the black community ― that Secretary Carson had long ago become a slippery metaphor regarding his personal truth.
Over the years, Carson had made great claims about the power of self-reliance, independence and social conservatism. His story had, in fact, deeply resonated among African-American students searching for role models and black Americans over the years. Carson gained a considerable following by preaching an American sermon of individualism, personal ingenuity, and hard-earned success won within the laissez faire economy.
In fact, blacks have been reading Carson’s books all along, and cheering on his rise-from-the- racial-rags story with the delight of its upbeat, exhortive endings. Carson’s elevation from the ghettos of Boston and Detroit into one of the most coveted roles in modern American medicine is to be applauded.
Yet, Carson’s campaign performance in 2016 was underwhelming, especially among black voters who had otherwise held him in high esteem as much for his vaunted grit in confronting racial barriers as for his intellectual achievement, fame and ability to walk confidently among the elite in this country.
His fall from grace among the African American community was inevitable. It started as he openly criticized President Obama’s healthcare policy at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. In the eyes of black folks, that marked a betrayal from which Carson could not recover.
From the perspective of African Americans, Carson was then soon shoved into purgatory of prominent black leaders who somehow drifted onto a path of extremely self serving behavior. His position against Obama was deemed insulting and resulted in racial expulsion and generalized community distain for his denigrating and solipsistic ways.
Like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Carson at some point relinquished his racial identity card for bowl of mythic porridge that contained the toxic ingredients of cultural celebrity status, the pursuit of excessive wealth and class achievement. Like former U.N. Ambassador Condoleezza Rice, Carson traded in publicly embracing their racial past in the name of integrationist commitments that signified an elevated stature within white America. To his black audience, Carson no longer signifies black achievement. He now exemplifies highly successful versions of a white American identity which — through the force of will and destiny — has managed to sanitize the ugly and unspeakable details of the American’s racial past. With considerable effort, Carson has lifted himself from his own tragic history, only to embrace forms of saccharine patriotism over bitter pain, anemic national celebration over the sobering effects of chattel slavery, public glorification of national honor over the horrific nightmare of the embattled fight for the freedom of human flesh.
This is why Carson’s American story seems to end so sadly even as he celebrates the early days of his tenure in national public office. He has lost much credibility from within the black community because of his abandonment of African American life ― its history and the curvature of its unique culture. It’s a tragedy for Carson to have experienced so much in his racial past and professional successes, yet decide ― seemingly knowingly ― to ignore all of it for a sad taste of notoriety and material prizes.
Kevin C. Peterson writes on American politics and culture.