Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and Republican presidential candidate, doesn’t mention race in his stump speech. Asked about it, he tends to deflect, rejecting racial distinctions as divisive.
But Carson’s ad campaign in the runup to last week’s South Carolina GOP primary was a different story. On right-wing talk radio in the state, his campaign had two race-based ads in heavy rotation. One inveighed against affirmative action as “racial entitlement,” while the other depicted black crime as a “crisis.” Taken together, the ads were a striking attempt to provoke white voters’ racial attitudes by a candidate who has otherwise avoided the subject.
The first ad began with a timely invocation of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who, the female narrator says, “thought affirmative action was wrong—that racial entitlement preserves the way of thinking that produced slavery, racial privilege, and hatred.” It continued:
More than anyone else running for president, Dr. Ben Carson knows about race and hatred. He was raised in the ghettos of Detroit. He saw the face of hatred, bigotry, and violence firsthand. So when Dr. Carson says we should replace affirmative action with compassionate action, that it’s a fairer way to treat people, we should listen to him. Judge Scalia’s life has taught us, if you’ve lived the life you believe in, you’ve earned the right to speak about what it has taught you. The rest is just political correctness.
The second ad began by describing the recent meeting between Al Sharpton and Bernie Sanders, which it depicted as a pandering photo-op. “Al Sharpton loves posing for pictures,” the male narrator says, “but what has he done to ease the plight of African Americans?” It went on:
FBI crime statistics show 52 percent of murders were committed by African Americans last year. It’s a national tragedy. Only one candidate knows firsthand what it takes to overcome poverty and racial violence: Dr. Ben Carson. Growing up on the mean streets of Detroit, he lived it, day in, day out. So when Dr. Carson says government dependency leads to more poverty, broken homes, crime, and incarceration, we should take note. He’s a leader who’s spent his life helping others, saving lives. And he can spot the difference between a crisis and a photo op.
Such sentiments—that affirmative action harms blacks, that black crime is the biggest threat to the black community—are a staple of black conservative rhetoric, but they are usually directed at black audiences, urging African Americans to lift themselves up by changing their ways rather than seeking policy solutions. (Liberal critics charge that this type of talk ignores the structural racism that prevents black people from rising on their merits.) But Carson’s commercials were airing on conservative talk radio, where the audience is overwhelmingly white.