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Why conservatives are saying Ben Carson is blacker than Barack Obama

They're wading into an emotionally-charged debate within black America.

That woman is basically Cornel West, right?
That woman is basically Cornel West, right?
Darren McCollester/Getty

Jonah Goldberg, a (white) editor at the conservative magazine National Review, thinks that Ben Carson is blacker than Barack Obama.

One could argue that he’s even more authentically African-American than Barack Obama, given that Obama’s mother was white and he was raised in part by his white grandparents. In his autobiography, Obama writes at length about how he grew up outside the traditional African-American experience — in Hawaii and Indonesia — and how he consciously chose to adopt a black identity when he was in college.

Meanwhile, Carson grew up in Detroit, the son of a very poor, very hard-working single mother.

This isn't the first time a white conservative has made this argument. Earlier this month, Rupert Murdoch attempted to contrast Carson with President Barack Obama by implying that Carson would be better for black America than Obama has been:

Murdoch appears to understand that the phrase "real black president" was offensive — he followed up the next morning with "Apologies! No offence meant." But it's not clear that he actually understood what was offensive about it.

Both Murdoch and Goldberg are inserting themselves into a debate within black America about who counts as black — which, when it comes to Obama, is inseparable from whether Obama has done enough for black people as president. That's what the New York magazine article Murdoch referenced is about: In it, several black critics fault Obama for being too reticent to talk about racism (especially early in his presidency) and for not using political capital on issues like voting rights.

Whether or not Murdoch and Goldberg know it, though, their praise for Ben Carson — whose appeal, Goldberg writes, comes partly from demonstrating "that there’s no inherent contradiction between being a minority (or a woman) and supporting conservative principles" is built on a critique of Obama borrowed from the black left. In other words, if they genuinely think that Carson's superior blackness makes him a better representative of, or ambassador to, black America than Barack Obama is, they don't understand the debate they've waded into at all.

What it means to say Barack Obama "isn't really black"

Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr., was born (and spent most of his life) in Kenya. Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, was a white woman from Iowa. So, by ancestry, Obama is biracial.

Many (mostly white) commentators have pointed to this as evidence that Barack is not "fully black," or that he "grew up" white and then "decided" to be black. Goldberg uses Obama's autobiography to make the second point:

Obama writes at length about how he grew up outside the traditional African-American experience — in Hawaii and Indonesia — and how he consciously chose to adopt a black identity when he was in college.

This is a foolish way to look at being biracial, as Jenée Desmond-Harris explained for Vox earlier this year: "He's chosen a descriptor that reflects his life experience, and, hard as it is for some to accept, we don't get to dictate what other people call themselves."

The more complicated version of this argument is that blackness in the United States was shaped irrevocably by the history of black discrimination: slavery and Jim Crow. In a world where many people are still only the fourth or fifth generation in their family to be "born free," the argument goes, someone whose family didn't come from slaves might be an African American in the technical sense, but he's missing the heritage that makes American blackness what it is. (In an ironic twist, Ancestry.com researchers discovered in 2012 that Obama is probably descended from one of the first slaves in the United States — but on his mother's side. This was a useful reminder that a lot of white people in the US have more black ancestry than they think, but it doesn't rebut the argument that Obama's family history wasn't shaped by slavery and its aftermath in the way most black Americans' family histories were.)

This isn't an academic debate. It's emotional, thorny, and difficult. It gets at not only people's senses of identity but also some awkward tensions and resentments within the black community: self-segregation and perceived snobbishness of 20th-century African immigrants toward other black Americans, ambivalence about whether middle-class black Americans can speak for the community, etc. All of which is to say it comes with a big flashing rhetorical AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY sign in front of it. People who aren't black (and that includes the author of this piece!) don't get to determine what it means to be black. We don't get to express an opinion on who gets to be black. We don't get to hide behind the words of one black person as a way to say another black person isn't black.

Murdoch and Goldberg might both know this, themselves, because both of them use other black people to support their point. Murdoch pointed to critiques made by black progressives who want Obama to push for policies that neither Murdoch nor Carson agree with. And Goldberg referred to Carson's celebrity among African Americans as an inspirational figure, before he got into conservative politics.

Ben Carson has built an entire political career on the Obama rhetoric black critics hate the most

It's true that Ben Carson used to be an inspiration to black America. But there's a reason that's changed, and it's not just that many black Americans don't trust the Republican Party.

Carson rose to fame as a black person speaking to other black people — far from the national spotlight of the presidency. His message — culled from his own life story — was always focused on individual responsibility: Work hard, educate yourself, resist "peer pressure," and excel at whatever you do. That's a conservative message — but it's a black conservative message, part of a long tradition of the gospel of black self-improvement.

When he became a conservative political figure, however — as Desmond-Harris' profile of Carson from earlier this year brilliantly captures — the message stayed the same, but the audience changed:

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."

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.

As Desmond-Harris shows, many white conservatives eat that message right up. But, she writes, "there's no question about it: Comments ... 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 [Carson's autobiography] Gifted Hands for her son."

This behavior — speaking about black people to white people — is one of the things that the black left hates the most about Obama.

He's sometimes been too interested in "post-racial" harmony for his critics. In the New York magazine piece that Murdoch referred to, for example, even former White House staffers expressed annoyance with the "beer summit" Obama held in 2009 between black Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the police officer who'd arrested Gates for breaking into his own home.

And when Obama speaks to black audiences, he often resorts to what's called "respectability politics": telling them it's their responsibility as individuals to behave the right way and stay out of trouble. Critics think that the fact that black youths have more trouble staying in school and out of prison than white ones do (for example) has less to do with their behavior than with systemic racial disparities in employment, criminal justice, education, etc. — and that focusing too much on the former diminishes the latter.

For some, this is made worse by the fact that while Obama often uses this sort of rhetoric when speaking to black audiences, the speeches are broadcast for everyone to see — encouraging some white people to interpret Obama's words as an official prescription for black America's problems.

It's also made worse by their frustration that Obama has never had a "black agenda" per se, and has not been willing to push as far as they'd like on issues like voting rights or racism in policing. The criticism is twofold: Obama spends time talking to white people about black people, when he should be advocating with white people for policies they feel would help black people.

In other words, Carson's entire appeal to people like Murdoch and Goldberg is built on the same sort of thing that, when Obama does it, is off-putting to the very black people who used to revere Carson, and the ones who now criticize Obama. And the policies the black left faults Obama for not doing more on are issues where Carson is much less willing to admit there's a problem.

The foremost black critic of President Obama, Cornel West, isn't stumping for Ben Carson. He's stumping for Bernie Sanders, a candidate who — despite his own reluctance to focus on racial inequality — promotes the leftist policies West thinks black America needs.


CORRECTION: This article originally said that Obama was "biologically" biracial. Since none of this article would have made sense if race were determined biologically, that was a stupid way to characterize it.