In an interview with Politico, conducted on Saturday as the results of the Republican primary in South Carolina rolled in, Ben Carson argued that Barack Obama didn’t really grow up black. Here’s the exchange, which began when Politico’s Glenn Thrush asked Carson if he “derived any pride, any sense of joy” out of Obama winning the 2008 election:
Carson: Like most Americans I was proud that we broke the color barrier when he was elected but I also recognize that his experience and my experience are night and day different. He didn’t grow up like I grew up by any stretch of the imagination.
Thrush: That’s right.
Carson: Not even close.
Thrush: He is an African American as opposed to an African-American.
Carson: He’s an African American. He was, you know, raised white. Many of his formative years were spent in Indonesia so for him to claim that he identifies with the experience of black Americans is a bit of a stretch.
Thrush: That’s interesting.
Carson is essentially making an economic argument, insinuating that because Obama grew up relatively comfortably in Hawaii he can’t understand what it was like to be raised poor in a city like Detroit during the era of segregation. Though Carson may have had a more difficult upbringing, you would imagine Obama taking offense to the notion that he was “raised white.”
In May of 2008, the AP’s Sudhin Thanawala wrote a story that investigated the exact topic of Obama’s experience as a biracial teenager in Hawaii. Thanawala spoke to a few of Obama’s black classmates from their time at the private school they attended in Honolulu, and found that everyday racism was prevalent. Said one named Rik Smith:
Smith, a geriatrician in California, said his experience at Punahou and in the islands was similar to Obama’s. Smith recalled classmates at Punahou agreeing that he should put his individual identity ahead of his race and remembered girls he wanted to date telling him they’d meet him somewhere else when he came to pick them up.
“Even in Hawaii, I’d walk down the street with a white guy, white girl, Asian person, and they would get uncomfortable if there were a whole bunch of black GIs coming down the street,” he recalled. “It wasn’t that different from the South or the mainland.”
Thanawala also notes that in his memoir Dreams of My Father, Obama mentions several specific instances of racism:
In his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama, who is half black and half white, recalled a seventh grader calling him a “coon” and a tennis pro who joked that his color might rub off. One person wanted to touch his hair, and he was asked whether his father, a native of Kenya, ate people. An assistant basketball coach used a racial epithet in referring to black players.
In an interview with People in 2014, both Barack and Michelle Obama spoke about the racism experienced by any black person living in America:
“There’s no black male my age, who’s a professional, who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn’t hand them their car keys,” said the president, adding that, yes, it had happened to him.
Mrs. Obama recalled another incident: “He was wearing a tuxedo at a black-tie dinner, and somebody asked him to get coffee.”
Even so, Obama might actually agree with Carson that he missed some sort of the black American experience by growing up middle class in a relatively more tolerant state. Nonetheless, Obama carved out a portion of his life to remedy exactly that.
We all remember Obama being pilloried by Republicans throughout the 2008 election for having been a “community organizer”—it’s such a favorite GOP meme that Sarah Palin even threw the phrase around last month in her rambling speech endorsing Donald Trump. The communities that Obama helped organize in his mid-20s were in neighborhoods in the South Side of Chicago, which, as Ta-Nehisi Coates detailed in “The Case For Reparations,” is a part of the country that, even after integration, was purposefully segregated and economically ravaged. According to the community organizer who hired Obama in 1985, Obama sought out the job specifically so he could learn firsthand what it was like to grow up the way Carson did. Speaking to the New York Times:
The year was 1985 and Gerald Kellman, a community organizer, was interviewing an applicant named Barack Obama to work in the demoralized landscape of poor neighborhoods on this city’s South Side. He liked the young man’s intelligence, motivation and acutely personal understanding of how it felt to be an outsider. He also remembers that Mr. Obama drove a hard bargain.
“He challenged me on whether we could teach him anything,” Mr. Kellman recalled. “He wanted to know things like ‘How are you going to train me?’ and ‘What am I going to learn?’”
Said another colleague:
“All of a sudden Barack finds himself in one of the most complex African-American communities in the United States and he discovers an energizing capacity to connect with the people in these neighborhoods,” said Gregory Galluzzo, a community organizer who worked with Mr. Obama.
“He is experiencing blackness in Chicago on both sides of the spectrum, from residents of public housing to Harold Washington,” Mr. Galluzzo added. “His identification with these people begins his political journey.”
The other aspect of Carson judging blackness in terms of wealth is that Carson and his wife Candy are fantastically rich. His own financial disclosure forms show that they are millionaires dozens of times over. Carson and his wife have three sons, and for part of their lives they lived in an eight-bedroom mansion that sits on 48 acres of property in rural Maryland. Would Carson say that his kids were raised white, or that they experienced a lesser form of blackness?
Actually, he might! Carson makes it clear in the Politico interview that he views the racism of the ‘60s as uniquely significant, and it would be hard to quibble with that assertion. But his hardline stance prevents him from connecting the racism he experienced to the racism that informs and ignites this current generation of black Americans. Says Carson at one point: “But remember now, I’ve been around for 64 years, you know. I’ve had a chance to see what real racism is.”
You can read a full transcript of the interview here.