Ben Carson may be a renowned doctor, but even he cannot perform surgery on history.
When the soft-spoken Islamophobic surgeon, critic of the modern civil-rights movement and top contender for the Republican presidential nomination, appeared on Fox News Channel’s Media Buzz as he began to climb in the polls, he declared that the GOP “has a very excellent opportunity by paying attention to some of the communities that they have neglected. And informing them about the history of the GOP. . . .”
Carson serves an important purpose in the Republican Party, but it’s unlikely that telling neglected communities about his party’s history is one of them. That history involves betrayal as well as neglect.
Prior to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and his repudiation of the Civil Rights Act, Republicans could compete with Democrats for black votes. Magazine editor and columnist George Curry addressed that history from an African-American perspective in 2009:
Blacks, most of whom lived in the South, supported the Republican Party not only because of Lincoln, but also because virulent white segregationist politicians in the South were Democrats.
Although Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman were able to attract a growing share of the African-American vote in the 1930s and 1940s, the “Party of Lincoln” could secure significant numbers of black votes as late as the 1960 Presidential campaign.
Then Goldwater geared his campaign toward Southern bigots livid over civil rights advances, causing a dramatic shift to the right within the GOP. In his 2006 autobiography Bridging the Divide, the late Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke––a moderate Republican who in 1966 became the first African-American elected to the Senate by popular vote, serving two terms before losing a 1978 reelection bid––observed that at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco:
[W]e moderates were outgunned. We saw our party taken over by zealous right-wingers. Their racial views would have appalled Abraham Lincoln. . . . The archconservatives who had rallied around Barry Goldwater did not believe that equal access to schools, hospitals, restaurants, and hotels were basic American rights. A tragic result of their ascendance was that the party of Lincoln did not back the Civil Rights Act of 1964. . . . [A]fter Goldwater [opposed the Civil Rights Act] it was difficult, if not impossible, for a black Republican like myself to recruit other blacks into the Republican Party.
Sixteen years after Goldwater lost in a landslide, his “states-rights” acolyte Ronald Reagan became the 40th president. Reagan and the New Right understood that in order to reverse what they considered the civil-rights excesses of the 1960s and 1970s (i.e., affirmative action and desegregation busing), it would help to have a few prominent faces of color inside and outside the administration promoting the idea that social racism had declined, and that there was no longer a need to have Big Government push for “equality of result.” Thus emerged Reagan’s recruited reactionaries of color, such as Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman (and future Supreme Court Justice) Clarence Thomas and U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Chairman Clarence Pendleton, as well as economists and Reagan cheerleaders Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams.
As GOP race-baiting continued into the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, it became ever more important to have a black face or two peddling the message that racism was on the decline and that civil rights protections were no longer needed. This was Alan Keyes’s message in his 1996 and 2000 campaigns for president. This was Herman Cain’s message (well, that and “9-9-9”) in his shambolic 2012 campaign for president. This is the core of Ben Carson’s message in his 2016 campaign for president.
African-American voters have seen through this charade, as evidenced by the strong black voter support for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama. This black-conservative bamboozling is as transparent as the diversity show that was the infamous 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia: a desperate attempt to convince the gullible that the Southern Strategy never really existed, that black education and employment opportunities are equal to those of whites, that police brutality and unequal access to quality health care are fictional problems, and that government bureaucrats are the real opponents of racial equality.
The American right needs its fantasies, and needs its hirelings to tell them those fantasies are real. Thomas, Sowell, Williams, Keyes, Cain, and Carson play the same role on race that climate deniers play on energy: insisting that we don’t have a problem and that anyone who says we do is lying. By playing this role, they’re keeping the con in conservatism.