Thoughts on Dr. Carson and Race
Personally, I really liked Ben Carson and hoped he would be our next President. I have to admit some of it was because I would love to see someone from my alma mater (Johns Hopkins) other than the embarrassing Woodrow Wilson serve as President. Mostly, though, he is brilliant and as a surgeon he worked as the leader of a team, not by himself.
There were seventeen GOP candidates when the race started, most of them politicians. As a relatively rare non-politician in the race for POTUS, I think it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider what caused him to drop out because most Americans have repeatedly stated a preference for having fewer career politicians. If that’s what we really want, then we need to think a bit more critically about the candidates and their backgrounds, not just have knee-jerk reaction that anyone who doesn’t look and act like a career politician is somehow unfit for the job.
In the end, I think his success as a surgeon is ultimately, and ironically, the reason his presidential campaign failed. As a surgeon, there were times he had to be on his feet, working, fully mentally alert, for far more than the normal eight hour work day – a work day many of us spend sitting behind a computer. His most famous surgery lasted twenty two (22) hours. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to recognize that surgeons would tend to conserve their energy much as a long-distance runner does, especially compared to a sprinter. People are used to seeing politicians, who act much more like sprinters and are “on” with a lot of energy on display at campaign events.
Another objection he faced was due to his extremely calm demeanor. His even-ness was interpreted as passivity.
Again, his career is relevant. Surgery is stressful under the best circumstances. How would you feel if your loved one was going in for brain surgery? Most people are not calm and relaxed in that circumstance. The calmer and more even the surgeon and those interacting with the patient and their family are, the less difficult it is for the family to remain calm and make the decisions they need to make, especially in pediatric neurosurgery (like Carson). Remaining calm and non-reactive at all times was a virtual professional necessity.
He finished his bachelors degree in 1973 and his MD in 1977. We have come a long way since then, but the simple fact is that Dr. Carson’s early professional career was formed in a different era. Ben Carson is a big man, and he is very dark-skinned. He cannot “pass” as any other race. In the 1970s, he would have faced significant racism compared to today. While racism still exists, racism in the 2010s USA simply isn’t comparable to what people experienced in the past. When Dr. Carson entered medicine, American society was still in the beginning stages of truly integrating and accepting non-whites.
While this is clearly speculative, I suspect that anyone who looked like Ben Carson in the 1970s would have needed to be far more reserved in their interactions in order to not upset those around them. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that a big black man who was passionate (“confrontational”) could have been setting themselves up for failure at that time, even though white males would have had no push-back no matter how confrontational they were. It certainly has been the case throughout our history, and there are still instances of it today. It’s flat-out wrong, but it is becoming less common (and less acceptable) as time passes.
And my Point is…
Presidential candidates have a personal history just like everyone else. Most of us are used to seeing career politicians running for office. Their lives have shaped them to perform in public exactly the way candidates are expected to perform. When people who are not career politicians – like Cain, West, Carson, and yes, Trump – run for office, their lives have shaped their public selves for a different job. Whether that is officer, business person, doctor, or something else entirely, that background may make them more capable of doing the actual job even as it makes them appear less ideal for the job.
Dr. Carson appeared low energy but has demonstrated the ability to remain up and working at a very high level for an entire day. He also had to be able to go from sound asleep to making literal life or death decisions virtually instantaneously. Those are certainly good qualities for a commander in chief! But in a candidate, it looked like he was low energy and disengaged.
We need to look beyond the surface and really look at what candidates are bringing to the job. We need to look at what skills, personality traits, and interpersonal abilities their prior experiences would have helped them develop.