Why Ben Carson is Right–and Wrong–on Race

Written by: Mitchell Robinson

Primary Source : Keep Talking, August 10, 2015

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Retired neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson, was asked one of the few questions on race at the first GOP Presidential debate last Thursday, and his answer provided a fascinating microcosm of our society’s frustrating and challenging understanding–or misunderstanding–of how race impacts the daily lives of so many of our fellow citizens.

Fox News’ Megan Kelly asked Dr. Carson what he would do to help race relations in the U.S. if he was elected president. He responded by saying, “I was asked by an NPR reporter once, why don’t I talk about race that often,” he said. “I said it’s because I’m a neurosurgeon. And she thought that was a strange response. And I said, you see, when I take someone into the operating room, I’m actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are. The skin doesn’t make them who they are. The hair doesn’t make them who they are. And it’s time for us to move beyond that.”

Dr. Carson is absolutely right when he says, “…I’m actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are.” The essence of who we are, biologically, is not determined by our hair, or eye color, or skin color.

But the issue of “who we are” is far more complicated than just biology. It’s determined by how and what we think, by how we treat one another, and by what we believe as human beings. It’s determined not by what we are made of, but what we do with what we are, and how we live our lives.

The trouble with Dr. Carson’s response is that while surgeons may have this sort of privileged glimpse into “who we are” when they have a patient on the operating table, there are far more instances in which the color of one’s skin makes a significant difference in how one is treated. A partial list might include:

  • law enforcement, including “stop & frisk” violations (After being arrested, African-Americans are 33% more likely than whites to be detained while facing a felony trial in New York)
  • police violence against unarmed black men (Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people)
  • random traffic stops (85% of people subject to vehicle stops by Ferguson police were African-American; 90% of those who received citations were black; and 93% of people arrested were black. This while 67% of the Ferguson population is black)
  • college admissions offices (Black and Hispanic students are dramatically underrepresented in highly selective colleges, even after controlling for family income. The probability of enrolling in a highly selective college is five times greater for white students than black students. Even after controlling for income, white students are two to three times as likely as black students to gain admission to highly selective colleges. These racial disparities appear to have grown in the last 30 years)
  • high school graduation rates (Black students had a 69 percent graduation rate and Hispanic students had a 73 percent rate, while 86 percent of white students and 88 percent of Asian students earned high school diplomas)
  • incarceration rates (an African American male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of going to jail in his lifetime, while a Latino male has a 17% chance, and a white male only has a 6% chance)
  • real estate agents (almost 40 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, many real estate agencies across the country still engage in blatant racial, ethnic and religious discrimination at “egregiously high rates”)
  • security guards in stores (Former security guards of CVS, a major American drugstore chain, say they were fired from their jobs after complaining about being ordered to racially profile minority shoppers at three New York City stores)
  • landlords (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that more than two million instances of housing discrimination occur each year, but fewer than one percent are reported)
  • loan officers (researchers found that black borrowers are 25 to 35 percent less likely to receive funding than a white borrower with similar credit)
  • sentencing guidelines (African Americans receive 10% longer sentences than whites through the federal system for the same crimes; African-Americans are 21% more likely than whites to receive mandatory minimum sentences and 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants)

Unfortunately for Dr. Carson, even brain surgeons are not immune to noticing the color of one’s skin when making determinations about medical treatments. According to a study by researchers in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, “There are significant racial and ethnic disparities” in how patients are treated in emergency rooms when admitted for mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), with minority patients being more likely to receive treatment from a resident rather than a specialist, and less likely to be referred for follow up care after being discharged from the hospital.

It shouldn’t take a brain surgeon to understand that while race may be a “social construct,” it is still real, and presents actual, tangible challenges, obstacles, and dangers to millions of Americans each and every day. And we should expect all candidates for the highest office in the land to recognize that they have an obligation to address race as more than a “skin deep” issue.

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Mitchell Robinson
Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education, and coordinator of the music student teaching program at Michigan State University. Robinson has held previous appointments as assistant professor and coordinator of the music education area at the University of Connecticut; assistant professor of school and community music education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; and director of wind activities and wind ensemble conductor at the University of Rochester. Robinson’s public school teaching experience includes 10 years as an instrumental music teacher, music department facilitator and high school assistant principal in Fulton, N.Y.