I can vividly recall the year that President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to be on the United Supreme Court. It happened years after I had worked as a Legislative Aide to Senator Birch Bayh, while Thomas worked for a Republican Senator John Danforth from Missouri. It was the late 1970’s, and a time when many Senators hired Black staffers in key positions. Thomas was one of those few.
There were about twenty of us who made the decision that we would rise above political parties, and come together once a month for a luncheon to discuss issues relevant to the Black community. We had some very outstanding guests speakers, among them Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Before he began his remarks at our luncheon, the great man told us that he usually did not accept invitations to such gatherings, but was so proud of who we were and what we represent for the progress of the race that he decided to be our speaker. Clarence Thomas did not show up. In fact, he never showed up. So years later when he was elevated to the Supreme Court, I spoke out that he was not a Black man filling the shoes of another Black man. But now as I look back, I was wrong. Clarence Thomas is a Black man who has experienced the same economic and social oppressions that we all did before the Civil Rights Movement. Just because he responded to that oppression differently than most of us, cannot negate the fact that he comes right out of our culture.
That brings me to Dr. Ben Carson. The Black liberal community will not support Dr. Carson’s bid to be president. His politics are different from most of us. But just because he does not share the majority of Black America’s proposed remedies for the problems plaguing our communities, does not mean he is a sell-out. And because he does not agree with us politically is no reason to jettison him out of our culture. Liberals and Democrats do not have a premium on what is acceptable as part of Black America. We are much more than just Al Sharpton, the NAACP, the Urban League, the thousands of Black ministers, the Nation of Islam and all the other organizations that lay claim to be the gatekeepers of our people.
Dr. Carson’s history in this country mirrors most Black Americans. He certainly does with me. I am familiar with the projects in Detroit where Dr. Carson grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. And I am familiar with the east side of Detroit and Hastings Street. As a young boy growing up in Saginaw, Michigan, I would visit my uncles attending Wayne State University at the time. They lived on the east side and I have memories of hearing the blues coming out of the night clubs, the smell of barbeque, the pawn shops, the liquor stores and the churches. I’m sure those are the same memories that Dr. Carson has of that section of the city.
Dr. Carson’s roots are in rural Georgia, home of both his parents but he was born and raised in Detroit. My roots are in rural Arkansas, where my mother was born about the same time as Dr. Carson’s parents. But like Dr. Carson I was born and raised in Saginaw. I imagine that our parents were all part of the great migration North during the first half of the 20th Century.
My point being that one’s political and ideological leanings are a minor part of one’s cultural identity. Culture reflects the cumulative history of a people. Dr. Carson and Clarence Thomas are products of that history, a commonality shared by all Blacks born in this country. Because of his conservative views and because he is running for president in the Republican primary, I would find it very difficult to support him if he made it to the general election. But if for a moment, we could block out his conservative views and imagine him as a liberal Democrat, wouldn’t he make the ideal candidate for Black America to support going into the election.