Today’s column is for the benefit of one Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson. He shouldn’t need what follows, but he obviously does. No other conclusion is possible after his interview with Politico a few days ago.
The subject was Barack Obama and what the Republican presidential contender sees as the inferior quality of the president’s blackness. “He’s an ‘African’ American,” said Carson. “He was, you know, raised white. I mean, like most Americans, I was proud that we broke the color barrier when he was elected, but … he didn’t grow up like I grew up.”
Carson, the son of a struggling single mother who raised him in Detroit, and sometimes relied on food stamps to do so, noted that Obama by contrast spent part of his childhood in Indonesia.
“So for him to claim that he identifies with the experience of black Americans, I think, is a bit of a stretch.”
Lord, have mercy.
Let’s not even get into the fact that the man questioning Obama’s racial bona fides once stood before an audience of white conservatives and proclaimed the Affordable Care Act “the worst thing that has happened in this country since slavery.” Let’s deal instead with Carson’s implicit assertion that to be authentically black requires being fatherless and broke, scrabbling for subsistence in the ’hood.
If a white man said that, we’d call it racist. And guess what? It’s also racist when a black man says it. Not to mention self-hating and self-limiting. Carson denies the very depth and breadth of African-American life.
By his “logic,” Kobe Bryant, who grew up in Italy, is not black. Shaquille O’Neal, who spent part of his childhood in Germany, is not black. Miles Davis and Natalie Cole, who grew up in affluent households, were not black, and Martin Luther King Jr., child of middle-class comfort and an intact family, was not black. According to him, they were all “raised white.”
Here’s what Carson doesn’t get: What we call “race” is not about neighborhood, class or family status. Though the African hostages upon whose backs this country was built shared certain common approaches to music, faith and art, race ultimately isn’t even about culture. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was an opera buff. It’s hard to get further from “black” culture than “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
No, race is something Europeans invented as a tool of subjugation. The people who came here from England, France and Spain did not initially see themselves as “white,” after all. They declared themselves white — that is, a superior species of humanity — to justify in their own consciences the evil things they did to the people they took from Africa. Similarly, those Africans knew nothing about “black.” They saw themselves as Fulani, Mende, Mandinkan or Songhay. “Black” was an identity forced upon them with every bite of the lash and rattle of the chains.
In other words, to be black is not to share a common geography, class or family status, but rather the common experience of being insulted, bullied and oppressed by people who think they are white. Want to know whether you’re black? Try to rent a house in Miami. Try to hail a cab in Times Square. Try to win an Oscar in Hollywood. You’ll find out real quick.
And there is something spectacularly absurd in the fact of Obama being criticized as “not black” by a Republican. Think about it: In the unlikely event he somehow managed to live the 47 years before his presidency without being insulted, bullied and oppressed by people who think they are white, Obama has sure made up for it since. Members of Carson’s party have called him “boy,” “uppity” and “ape,” and have gone to extraordinary and unprecedented lengths to block him from doing … anything.
So the good doctor can relax. If Obama wasn’t “black” before, he certainly is now.
Leonard Pitts Jr.: email@example.com