Ben Carson's demented snake oil: Fox News, black conservatives, and the role of race in the GOP

The big exaggerations in Ben Carson's biography matter less than the big lies he tells about race and economics

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 11, 2015 8:08PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Carlos Barria)
(Reuters/Carlos Barria)

Tuesday night’s debate on the Fox Business Network was a retread of tired Republican talking points. Benghazi was mentioned—again. The free market is a cure for all problems even when an unregulated free market is actually the cause of said problems. Extending health insurance through privately owned companies to people who need it is evil. Of course, there was empty talk about “keeping America strong.” As always, the so-called “liberal media” was cited as a cause of the GOP candidates’ troubles—as opposed to the latter’s hostile and toxic relationship to the truth.

In his role as professional “best black friend” for the Republican Party, Ben Carson played his designated role perfectly as he gave voice to policies that he believes hurt people of color by opposing an increase in the minimum wage.

During Tuesday night’s Republican debate he said:

“As far as the minimum wage is concerned, people need to be educated on the minimum wage,” Carson began in his opening salvo. “Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases. This is particularly a problem in the black community. Only 19.8 percent of black teenagers have a job, or are looking for one. And that's because of those high wages. If you lower those wages, that comes down.”

This is a tired and tedious claim, one that is a product of right-wing think tanks and the broader Fox News entertainment complex.

Carson’s claims about the minimum wage are also part of a larger belief system where basic efforts by the federal government to protect labor, prevent racial discrimination, maintain a social safety net, and a belief that the state can actually have a positive impact on the Common Good, are rejected by conservatives as incompatible with “individual freedom” and “personal responsibility.”

Black conservatives are trotted out at as the lead voices against “big government” because poverty and the idea of an “interventionist” government have been racialized by white conservatives from the end of Reconstruction through to the 1960s with the “Southern Strategy”, and into the present with assaults on Obama as a “welfare king” or when Republicans such as Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, and others suggest that black Americans are parasites who only want “free stuff” from the United States government—and by extension—“hard working” white people.

Such narratives and claims are the basis of the politics of white racial resentment. Such a strategy uses white racism to win elections for Republicans. Here, black conservatives like Ben Carson are human camouflage that allows the white right to claim they are not racist. In this logic, how could Republican policies be racist when they are parroted and given voice by black conservatives such as Ben Carson, Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas and other prominent black faces on the white right?

(Black conservatives are also used to dishonestly leverage the symbolic power of the Black Freedom Struggle to advocate for policies such as charter schools (and the broader neoliberal nightmare project) which they claim will give “freedom” to the black and brown poor, but in actuality produce worse educational outcomes than public schools while simultaneously transferring public monies to the pockets of the 1 percent.)

There is a whole knowledge production industry that produces Ben Carson’s claims that an increase in the minimum wage will hurt black Americans.

For example, African-American economists such as Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell have built careers on legitimating right-wing arguments that minimum wage and civil rights laws actually hurt people of color.

Thomas Sowell is a darling of the right-wing media and libertarian establishment. For more than 30 years, he has been a fellow at The Hoover Institution. Sowell is also a regular contributor to World Net Daily.

Walter Williams is a featured columnist in newspapers around the United States where he offers up his Right-wing bromides about the evils of civil rights laws and how African-Americans have actually been hurt by the federal government and civil rights laws (as opposed to empowered by them). Walter Williams’ 1985 documentaries “Good Intentions” and “State Against Blacks” have been repeatedly featured by Fox’s John Stossel.

For 20 years, Walter Williams has also been a guest host on the Rush Limbaugh Show, a show that has routinely offered racist and hateful stereotypes and screeds about black people and President Obama.

Both Williams and Sowell have echoed ugly and unfounded right-wing claims that African-Americans are dumb, stupid, too emotional, irrational, and stuck on a “Democratic plantation” as explanations for why that group has for decades overwhelmingly rejected the Republican Party’s policies and candidates.

Ultimately, Carson’s claims about the minimum wage are a reflection of the libertarian right-wing’s naïve and fantastical worship of an idealized type of free market capitalism that does not exist.

In this world, racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination are just “inefficiencies” that the “invisible hand” will erase. As demonstrated by decades of Jim and Jane Crow, as well as centuries of white on black chattel slavery, the “free market” is extremely adept at reinforcing and producing persistent racist outcomes that rob and limit individual agency and freedom as opposed to expanding them. Racism and capitalism are not exclusive of one another. They have existed in a symbiotic relationship in the United States and the West. This relationship continues into the post civil rights era.

Carson’s understanding of how minimum wage laws actually hurt black and brown Americans is based on a fallacious belief that if non-whites are stigmatized by racism or otherwise lack skills—thus making them comparatively more “expensive” as this is another labor disincentive or cost—raising the minimum wage will make them even less desirable in the labor market. The evidence complicates this in a number of ways.

Black Americans at all levels of education and income face discrimination in the labor market relative to white people. In fact, social scientists have estimated that a black man with no criminal background has the same chance of getting an interview as a white man with a felony.

Black and brown Americans are over-represented in minimum and low wage sectors of the American economy. An increase in the minimum wage would have a disproportionate impact on their life outcomes. While black youth with no skills may be initially hurt by raising the minimum wage, the incomes of people in the low to semi skilled job sector would be helped. Moreover, the institutional forces such as broken schools, custodial citizenship, mass incarceration, and residential segregation that lock people into low wage work need to be corrected as well.

Low wages for non-whites have historically been a tool for white employers and plutocrats to suppress wages for all Americans. White Americans have a fear that black and brown people will “take their jobs.” White American elites know this. For centuries they used such fear to position the white working class and poor against their natural allies among people of color in the same economic cohort. In the United States “divide and conquer” is one of the primary tools for white supremacy: it uses class insecurity to hurt working people on both sides of the color line.

Most importantly, conservatives’ specious claims about how a raise in the minimum wage would hurt the American economy are easily contradicted.

The role of black conservatives is to make the unconscionable acceptable, to turn lies into truths, and to make the unacceptable okay. Ben Carson fulfills that role perfectly.

Black folks, the doctor will see you now. His name is Ben Carson. Your prognosis is already grim—and Dr. Carson’s medicine bag is overflowing with poison.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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