Ben Carson, in Baltimore, Faces a Tough Sell to the Black Community

His message did not satisfy some attendees. Others were simply thankful that he showed up to listen to their concerns.

Dr. Ben Carson speaks with faith and community leaders in Baltimore, Maryland on May 7, 2015, as he begins his bid for the White House. (National Journal)

BALTIMORE, Maryland—For nearly two hours on Thursday afternoon, Dr. Ben Carson spoke at a church in East Baltimore, far from the epicenter of the protests over Freddie Gray's death, to a frustrated congregation.

That congregation gathered at the Bilingual Church of Baltimore included clergymen, business owners, educators, and students—who all had the same basic question: How do we address the pain the city is feeling in the wake of Gray's death?

Carson started out by praising the Baltimore citizens who came out after the riots to clean up their neighborhoods, and he said there should have been more media coverage of that. He also praised the black men who stood between protesters and the police to defray confrontations. And he voiced support for one area of policing reform, calling the use of body cameras "a very excellent idea."

Carson, who lived in Baltimore for 36 years, said he never personally experienced any trouble with police, but his cousin was killed by a police officer. Giving his medical perspective, Carson said it was "more than likely" Gray's spine was destabilized by someone else, then added, "I'm sure that was not the intent of whoever did it."

Confronted with confounding questions, Carson returned to his central philosophy: that if government gets out of the way, if we cut corporate taxes, give more options for charter schools, and encourage the "can-do attitude" that helped him rise out of poverty, it will lift everyone into prosperity, including black Americans.

But that message, no matter how uplifting, struck a somewhat discordant note with the Baltimore community members he spoke with on Thursday. It is much harder for them to separate personal success from the success of the state institutions that shape their lives.

A local bishop talked about the prevalence of teen pregnancy in Baltimore. Baltimore City Lieutenant Colonel Melvin Russell commented that the police need to return to building relationships with community members. Phyllis Coley, a director of counseling at Edmondson Westside High School, said it's difficult for students to achieve when their basic human needs aren't being met, when they are coming to school hungry and can't pay attention because there is no air-conditioning.

It's a dizzying merry-go-round of misfortune for anyone to attempt to address—the root of one problem is often the tip of another problem, from police brutality, to mass incarceration, to incentives to commit crime, to unemployment, to education, to family life, to mental health.

These questions are even more complicated for Carson to answer. Throughout his medical and now political career, Carson's core thesis was his self-determination: Against all odds, he achieved unimaginable success with the encouragement of his mother and his own sheer will to learn. It's a refrain Carson returned to when Khari James, a 14-year-old student at Maryvale Preparatory School, asked Carson how he could address the pain being felt in Baltimore.

"I'll tell you how I escaped: books. I go to the library, didn't have to pay a thing for those books. Between the covers of those books, I could go anywhere, I could be anybody, I could do anything. And I began to empower myself. I began to learn all kinds of things," Carson told James. "The most important thing I learned was that the person who had the most to do with what happened to me was me and that I didn't have to be a victim, that nobody else could tell me what I could and couldn't do. And that's something that actually lasted throughout my medical career, too. The reason that I did so many things that hadn't been done before is because I didn't listen to the people who said, 'You can't do that.'"

J. Wyndal Gordon, a trial lawyer seated at the table, did not let that anecdote lay pat for long.

"Your suggestion to this young man is to suppress all the anguish and pain he feels by reading some kind of book," Gordon said.

"What I told him is what I did," Carson responded.

"Well, you told him that so he could use that as an example of what he could do," Gordon said. "You're just on the surface, and you have to dig a little deeper. If you dig a little deeper, you'll understand the source of the pain. It didn't come from the uprising in Baltimore. It was there before that."

Ibrahim Auguste, a 21-year-old student at the Community College of Baltimore County, later asked Carson what he should do about being profiled by police. Carson returned to emphasizing the need for a "can-do attitude" and not letting yourself become a victim. Auguste was not satisfied with that answer.

"If you tell someone to suppress their feelings and their issues of reality, and you talk about being practical, what happens when they come back from fairyland, and the problems and issues are still very real?" Auguste later replied. "You come back home, and home is still destroyed, still trashed, still overrun, still what it is?"

"There were a lot of people who grew up around me, who went through the same things that I went through, and adopted a very different attitude. And it didn't end up well for them," Carson said. "We don't have to be victims. We don't have to be somebody that somebody else has to do something for. We have enormous ability and willpower. Not everybody has it, but most people. And I think we need to be encouraging people about what they can do more than what they can't do."

This type of "respectability politics"—that if only black protesters would be peaceful, stop looting, stop setting cars on fire, and pull up their pants, these problems would go away—may earn nods from older Baltimoreans and eye rolls from the younger residents who have been protesting.

"A lot of the people protesting, they don't know what they want," Auguste told National Journal. "They're like, 'Oh, we've got our hands up, don't shoot us,' but you've had your hands up for 400 years, and you're still getting shot."

Some attendees were just happy Carson showed up. It's more than can be said for the majority of presidential contenders, with the exception of likely candidate Martin O'Malley.

"I think it's important that he's coming to listen. Listening is a great skill for leadership," André Turner, who leads a program to help mentor young men in Baltimore, told National Journal. "Leaders listen, and then they recycle the information and they give it back to the community. For me, I think what Carson is doing is creating a forum to listen so he can recycle and repurpose that and put a plan together."

During the meeting, Carson made an earnest effort to hear what people were saying and appeared to take it into account. But other attendees were less satisfied with what he had to offer.

Gordon, who describes himself as fiscally conservative and liberal on individual rights, said he was not impressed with Carson's delivery on Thursday. Rather than focusing on the outcomes of ingrained racial prejudice—looting, rioting—Gordon said Carson should focus on diagnosing the underlying causes.

"This isn't the cause of us being here. This is an effect. What he's actually seeing is an effect of decades and decades, and generations and generations, of a lack of opportunity," Gordon told National Journal. "Don't use our community as a whipping boy."

Being the only prominent black presidential candidate in 2016, it's hard for Carson to reject calls for him to be the face of racial pain in this country. It's also a role he is extremely wary of occupying. In that respect, if nothing else, Carson has something in common with Barack Obama.