It may sound crazy, but the last week has been very very good for Ben Carson’s campaign. If Donald Trump is a human internet comments section then Ben Carson is walking talking clickbait. He’s dominated the news cycle, been the topic of no less than three trending hashtags; has raised over 3.5 million dollars and goes into the Fox Business News debate as the number one conservative victim of the evil liberal media.
While plenty of Americans view a week of revelations that Carson has lied throughout his biography as a bad thing, for Carson this entire week has fit perfectly. He’s fulfilling his role as the “Redeemed Negro” in the minds of the American public and because of that, he’ll come out of this storm more powerful than he was when it started.
What is the political “Redeemed Negro”? Historically white America has long held on to the belief that black people must ‘earn’ their way into realms of power, especially politically in ways that white politicians are not expected to. Research shows that when running in a white majority electorate, even today, white voters often question the competence, intelligence and character of African American candidates regardless of party.
Black candidates are saddled with the strategic burden of proving competence and proper values while at the same time appearing accessible but not threatening to white voters.
It’s not good enough to be ‘twice as good’ when you’re black and running for higher office—not even a nice “rags to riches” story will do it.
A candidate has to demonstrate an almost Booker T. Washington-esque moral rectitude. Any deviation from that in one’s background could spell electoral doom. Black candidates are saddled with the strategic burden of proving competence and proper values while at the same time appearing accessible but not threatening to white voters. Thus we get the black version of the “Rags to Riches” political narrative: The “Redeemed Negro”.
The “Redeemed Negro” narrative allows black candidates to simultaneously accrue the benefits of the “rags to riches” story while at the same time counter-acting long held prejudices about black moral turpitude. If you cannot ascribe yourself a perfect background, and if stereotypes don’t allow you to discount past behavior as ‘wayward youth’ (like Bush, or Clinton etc.) then you dig in your heels. You were a thug, a violent kid, a weed smoking miscreant. You had to ‘earn’ your way into polite society by eschewing the pathologies associated with the black community. If you can’t portray your past as being the perfect model Negro then you can sell the public on your story of the crook turned credit to his race.
Condoleeza Rice presented an idyllic childhood, so did Mia Love and happy but poor narratives from Deval Patrick and Herman Cain served them well. But lacking the racial space to have youthful indiscretions President Obama and to a greater extent Ben Carson have played up just how bad they were as kids.
Obama was a wild teen getting high and wasting his life before cleaning up his act to go to Columbia. Ben Carson was an out of control Detroit thug who found God and medicine as a symbolic way of healing the pain he dealt out as a youth. Not only does this story help the candidate but in the case of Ben Carson there’s nothing that evangelical Christians love more than the Prodigal Son, Saul to Paul type of parable.
Ben Carson can be forgiven for some exaggeration in “Gifted Hands”. First, he wrote the book two decades before he was even thinking of running for office and second, amalgamation of characters and time-line fudging are common elements to autobiographies. It’s commonplace for autobiographies to combine several mentors into one life changing art teacher, or turn eight months of waffling about going to rehab into a dramatic epiphany after waking up drunk and naked in a Toys R. Us parking lot.
The “Redeemed Negro” narrative allows black candidates to simultaneously accrue the benefits of the “rags to riches” story while at the same time counter-acting long held prejudices about black moral turpitude.
But playing up a violent past as a motivational speaker and “Redeemed Negro” candidate is one thing. Blatantly lying about applying to and getting accepted at West Point is another. When you’re the outsider and don’t have much practical experience to actually run on, your personal story is your resume. And if you lie on your resume people have a right to question if you’re right for the job. Ben Carson may have given conservative evangelical Christians the token they crave but the same may not apply to other Republican voters let alone independents.
Dr. Ben Carson can continue to hide behind his conservative cult of personality and play the media victim as long as he wants. He’s sold himself as the “Redeemed Negro” and that’s pretty much the only story he’s got to offer as his justification for running for president.
However if he wants to actually be competitive in anything behind this pre-Iowa fashion primary he might need to come up with something other than a nice backstory. Redemption makes a great song, but it’s not enough to get people dancing to the polls.