the most embarrassing black man in america?

May 31, 2019
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Ben Carson could be the Most Embarrassing Black Man In America right now. He’s certainly causing Black folks who worry about how we are viewed by people outside the race, to have nervous breakdowns. Carson’s had so many brain-meltingly stupid moments they’ve become what we expect from him. Most recently he showed his ignorance of the basic facts of his job as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development when he revealed in a Congressional hearing that he didn’t know what an REO was.

This is hardly the first time Carson has seemed like a hot mess in front of the camera. I’ll never forget that interview during the 2016 Presidential campaign where he just ran away. Or the time he said being gay is a choice. Or when he said that President Barack Obama was “raised white… So for him to claim that he identifies with the experience of Black Americans is a bit of a stretch.” Carson has also called Obama a “psychopath,” and said that Obamacare was worse than 9/11 because 9/11 was an isolated incident. (In case you’re counting, Carson is 13th in line for the Presidency.)

The way Carson speaks, slowly and haltingly, conveys the impression that there’s vast empty space in his mind. Trevor Noah once said Carson sounds like he just got shot with a tranquilizer dart. Even the reason Carson is on the national stage right now suggests he’s not that sharp. He is the highest-ranking African-American in the Trump administration, which makes him a willing pawn in Trump’s half-hearted effort to signal that he’s not racist. No, Carson could not have gotten the gig as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development because of his qualifications — because he had no experience in that field. It’s more like, once again, he’s serving as the right’s magical negro, giving them the Black man they need.

Carson’s usefulness to the right became apparent to them at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, a non-political event where he used his time onstage to politically attack Obamacare and President Obama who was sitting a few feet away. This moment changed Carson’s life and launched his political career, because a Black man who would stand up and challenge Obama served two purposes for the right — it sated their need to attack Obama for any imaginable slight, real or fictional, and it added a Black voice to the right’s anti-Obama chorus which would inoculate their critique from racism. So, for years, Carson has been kind of like Stephen, the Samuel L. Jackson character in Django Unchained for the American right wing. Trump is only the latest Calvin Candie he’s served.

But Carson’s buffoonery comes as a shock to some of us who recall that he used to be one of the most revered Black people in America. The difference between Carson now and back in the 1980s and ‘90s is so drastic that it seems like we’re talking about two different people. Perhaps Carson is a victim of the tethered from Jordan Peele’s Us, having switched placed with his evil twin.

If the current GOP-loving Carson is all you know of him then the rest of this paragraph may seem impossible to believe, but Black people used to consider Ben Carson awesome. He was included in roll calls of Blacks-who-make-us-proud, and considered one of the greatest neurosurgeons in the world. Carson led a 70-surgeon team that separated twins who were conjoined at the head, and operated on a fetus in the womb. In 1984, at the age of 33, he became the youngest chief of pediatric neurosurgery in America (at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital). In 2001, CNN and Time named him one of America’s 20 foremost physicians, and the Library of Congress called him a living legend. His memoir, Gifted Hands, was adapted into a movie, in which Cuba Gooding, Jr., played Carson. He was the Michael Jordan of surgeons or maybe Michael Jordan was the Ben Carson of basketball players. He was that beloved.

The surgical procedure that made Carson a household name — a separation of twins who were conjoined at the back of the head — turned out to be a disaster. One of the twins ended up in a vegetative state, and both saw their quality of life decrease. Years later their mother told a reporter, “I will never get over this. . . . Why did I have them separated?” Carson was doing risky, dangerous, cutting edge procedures, and those would often lead to difficult outcomes; but it’s symbolic of the Ben Carson we’ve come to know that the event that made his name turned out to be a failure.

Carson makes me think that some people misunderstand intelligence. It doesn’t mean you know everything. It means you have a lot of knowledge in your memory and you have a sharp ability to analyze people and information. If your knowledge base is deep and impressive on one complex subject then you are intelligent; but when you wade into a subject you know little about, your intelligence can’t protect you from sounding stupid. Still, part of the surprise and disappointment about this part of Carson’s life for me is that even though he’s the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a position that puts many people’s lives in his hands, he feels no need to study hard. If he had, he would know what an REO is. But no, this product of academia has adopted the modern right’s aversion to intellectual qualities, to research, and to truth. He knows how to build his mind, and instead chooses to rely on his highly  uninformed gut. The example Carson has set is reason enough to never again use the phrase “brain surgeon” as synonymous with brilliance, because as we all can see, the most famous brain surgeon in the country is, outside the hospital, a total doofus.