Republican presidential candidates including Rand Paul are opining about last night's violent unrest in Baltimore and continued protests over the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody earlier this month. But only one GOP presidential hopeful has spent time in the community protesting right now: surgeon turned likely Republican candidate Ben Carson, who began his medical career at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University Hospital.
Carson's comments to GQ have attracted some scorn from the internet for comparing protests against police to protests against plumbers. That's a dumb line that obscures a more nuanced argument. Carson acknowledges discrimination and problems with individual police officers in Baltimore, but says those problems can't be fixed by tarring all police with a broad brush.
In no way am I saying that all the police are righteous, by no stretch of the imagination. And clearly we need to be dealing with that. But recognize that we're dealing with a people problem. When you look at the Baltimore police force, it's about as diverse as any police force you're going to find in a big city. There may even be more minorities on that police force than there are non-minorities. The point being that inappropriate behavior comes in all colors, it's not specific. And just because it comes by one color or another color doesn't mean it should be ignored. It needs to be dealt with.
What's striking about this is that Carson isn't just saying, "Don't talk about 'the police'; talk about individual police officers." He's also saying the same about the protesters themselves. Other political figures (including President Obama) have simply condemned last night's violence as the actions of "criminals" who took advantage of the Gray protests to steal, break, and burn things. But Carson is talking about the unrest as an act of protest. That's a lot more sympathetic to the protesters themselves.
Elsewhere in the interview, Carson points out how much of the damage from last night's violence was borne by black business owners who may have "spent their whole lives building up those businesses." That's a criticism of the violence, but it's also a way to point out that the African-American community in Baltimore isn't a monolith — and it's a contrast with people who point to broad, deeper problems with inner-city "culture" at large, like Rand Paul did in a radio interview with Laura Ingraham Tuesday morning.
Carson still misses the real "larger issue"
The takeaway from Carson's GQ interview is that he wants to avoid any broad characterization of how groups behave, and focus on individual responsibility: a traditionally conservative perspective. But when it comes to policing in America — or to race relations in America, more generally — that perspective is simply not complete. You don't have to believe that all police officers are bad people to believe that "get[ting] to the bottom of any problems of discrimination" is bigger than individual police officers.
Carson tips his hand when he declares that "how do you react when something is wrong" is a "larger issue" here than discrimination is.
We need to get to the bottom of any problems of discrimination. But the larger issue here is, how do you react when something is wrong? If you have an unpleasant experience with a plumber, do you go out and declare a war on all plumbers? Or teachers or doctors? Of course not. And it makes no sense to do that with police either.
Much has been made of his plumber comment, but what he's saying here is that whatever police have done to Baltimore's black community is less important than how residents respond — he's asking protesters to take the high road in the face of well-documented, systemic mistreatment. There's a long history of this sort of message in black conservatism. But protesters and others can be forgiven for thinking it's a double standard.