Renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson, who became the subject of a national conversation after delivering a politically incorrect speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. last month, talked with The Christian Post on Thursday about race, politics and life after medicine. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
CP: You have been a star and a role model since the 1980s for many people who have followed your work and your life story. But since your speech at the National Prayer Breakfast became public knowledge, your star seems to have morphed into something else. How does the reaction to your speech now, compare to the response you got when you made medical history?
Carson: Well the response now is just overwhelming. It's almost indescribable the amount of people calling, sending e-mails, sending letters, sending checks, it's just beyond belief. And everywhere I go, I go to an airport, I go to a train station, people are coming up and just saying "thank, thank you, thank you for speaking up," and you know, I'm getting the very distinct impression that there are a lot of people who have just been beaten into submission and they've just sort of given up hope. And it's just kind of nice to see that reviving, although I don't necessarily see myself as the savior, but I would like to see more people just stand up for what they believe in.
CP: I know that your books began moving off the shelves pretty quickly after that, can you say what sales have been like since your speech?
Carson: Well the paperback is #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list today.
CP: Your work at the Carson Scholars Fund supporting intellectual superstars was also well received by the public. How would you describe the response to the Fund since your speech? Did the website crash? Do you have an estimate of the added funds that have come in so far?
Carson: No the website did not crash (laughs). We have very good and efficient staff and they have been able to handle things, very well. You know, there are bags and bags of mail, no question about that. It's very touching a lot of it, particularly letters from elderly Americans who send like $5 or $7, that's all they can afford, but they want to be a part of something and so many elderly people told me they had given up on America and they were just ready to die. And now they feel revived again. And I'm thrilled to see that happening. We have constantly money coming in but certainly in excess of $100,000.
CP: Talk to me a little bit about your family's reaction to the response you have received for making that speech?
Carson: They were there at the speech. They are very solid citizens. They are all solid Christians. They all understand what's going on in our country and they are thrilled that we are not just sort of capitulating and allowing political correctness to destroy the fabric of our nation.
CP: How about your extended family at the Spencerville Seventh Day Adventist church? They told me that you are a very private person who also teaches a class, have things been different at church since the speech?
Carson: Ah, no, things are pretty much the same. In my Sabbath School class we discussed all the publicity and I do ask for people's advice and best ways to handle things. I do that all the time.
CP: Let's talk about the speech for a little bit. The fact that you abandoned PC (political correctness) as you like to call it and shared some of your concerns regarding government policy now has you on the political radar of many different groups. Should they be worried? Will you continue to actively speak like this?
Carson: My impression is no. No one should be worried whether I did that (joined a specific political party) or not. What they should be concerning themselves with is how do we fix the many problems that are going on in our nation. You know, that's part of the problem. Everybody gets worried and gets their nose out of joint because somebody expresses an alternate opinion. Rather than sitting down and willing to discuss what those alternatives are and what the goals are and if we can ever get people to focus on that I think we can get back on the right track.
CP: Public figures often have little control over what they come to symbolize once in the public sphere, and that seems particularly true of black professionals who have become leaders in their fields. Your success and accomplishments, for many, represent realization of the dream of the Civil Rights Movement and prior efforts to increase access and opportunity for black youth, and also illustrate what can be achieved when that access is put to good use. If left to define your own story and its meaning, what would you like to be seen to symbolize?
Carson: I would like people to recognize in looking at my story that the person who has the most to do with what happens to you is you. It's not the environment, it's not the other people who were there trying to help you or trying to stop you. It's what you decide to do and how much effort you put behind it. And we need to do everything we possibly can to empower people and help people not to feel like they are victims.
CP: How do you interpret the increasingly divergent experiences of poor and more affluent black people in America, in an era when unprecedented rates of black wealth and education co-exist with higher-than-ever numbers of black men in jail and prison? Where do you think the root of the problems lie?
Carson: I think a lot of the problem lies in the breakdown of the family, because that is really where you get your sense of value and if you don't get it there then it's gonna come from someplace, and too often it comes from peer groups and negative peer groups. So you find for instance a lot of young girls who think that it's cool to get pregnant and to have a baby when it's the opposite because that baby has four times the instance of growing up in poverty. And some of the young fellas who begin to believe that society is unfair to them and that they need to find another way in which to obtain personal justice, which just never leads to the right place. And that just doesn't necessarily happen when you have a strong family that is giving you the appropriate types of values.
CP: A lot of people think it would be a great idea for you to run for President. How has your wife and sons reacted to the proposal?
Carson: Well, we all feel the same way and that's I have no interest in running for political office. And that is the way I am gearing my life right now but I also recognize that I am a servant of God and I will always do what I feel God is calling upon me to do. Right now I don't feel he is calling me to go into politics. I always pray for God's guidance in my life and he always provides it. He opens the right doors he shuts the right doors. And I have tremendous faith in him. He just guided my career in an amazing way.
CP: How do you feel about the term "social conservative hero," which is often used to describe you? Do you think it boxes you in?
Carson: You will have a difficult time finding someone who cares less about what the media says (laughing). You'd really have a tough time.
CP: I recently spoke with an expert in politics at Columbia University and he told me that America knows nothing about your politics. You have said you are an Independent and you have shared your ideas on a few policy issues, but what really is your politics? How would you describe your worldview?
Carson: Well what I would simply say to that professor at Columbia is my politics are extremely well laid out in all the books that I've written and particularly in the last book, America the Beautiful. If you don't know what my political stance is after reading that you're a moron.
CP: CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) also recently announced that you will be among a star-studded list of speakers at their conference this month, do you have any idea what you will be saying yet?
Carson: Well pretty-much like at the National Prayer Breakfast, I don't know what I'm gonna be saying. I will continue to think about various and sundry things. I certainly want to bring out the importance of people being able to dialogue in a civil manner and how that's essential to the progress of our nation. How Jesus said a house divided against itself cannot stand and it doesn't matter whether you think you are right and the other person is wrong, you have to find a way to be able to talk together and to understand what your objectives and goals are. And to be able to find common ground and to work toward those and not to allow various special interest groups to create conflict and irritate the system for their own benefit and not really care about where the progress is made with unity.
CP: A lot of what has been on people's lips since the Republicans lost in the last election is the need for the GOP to rebrand itself to appeal to an America that is becoming increasingly diverse. Do you think the GOP has a diversity problem?
Carson: Well I think both parties have a diversity problem to be honest with you. I think in many cases one party has been able to get a lot of people who are of meager means to be dependent. And to make them believe that, that party is on their side. And I think that that has been a successful political strategy. However, a lot of those people have a superiority complex and they promote programs that keep a certain segment of the population quite subservient and happy to be there as long as they're providing things for them rather than using those same resources to create mechanisms of elevating those people and moving them up. But if you move them up then you can no longer be superior and a lot of people don't understand that concept.
CP: Most African-Americans and Hispanics hold deep social conservative values. Why do you think these groups voted for President Obama anyway despite the conflict that many of his policies have with their values?
Carson: Well, I asked many people that very question in conversation, including some African-American ministers who are extremely opposed to the gay marriage issue. And they just say well, he's black, he's one of us. We've got to support him. And some people just believe that you have no choice but to support the man because of the color of his skin. I think that's not necessarily the best reason for doing it but I certainly understand it particularly given the long history of racism and discrimination you finally get somebody who looks like you, you're gonna support them no matter what happens. Is that a logical way to do things? Maybe not but it's certainly understandable.
CP: How would you advise the (Republican) Party to go about recasting its image to appeal to more minorities?
Carson: Well I think they have to be a little better in terms of explaining how things work. They have to explain what the benefits of education are and how they are going to make sure that that education is available to people. They have to show for instance in healthcare, how another system will provide an individual with much greater flexibility than what's being thrust upon them now. With much better choice and much better access for much less money. But unless they can explain these things in a way that people can understand, they are not gonna make a lot of progress.
CP: If by some act of God you should decide to run for President and join the Republican Party, what would you do to change things?
Carson: And that's what it would be (an act of God). Well if I were elected President, I wouldn't be trying to change the Republican Party because I am not a Republican, for one thing and for the second thing, I believe that the President of the United States has the duty and the responsibility to be the President of everybody not the President of one party or another party or one faction of one party or the other party. I think that's one of the problems that's leading to the downfall of our nation right now.
CP: Some prominent critics of President Obama have said that he has not done enough to elevate the conversation on race and how it affects African-Americans in this country in particular. What are your thoughts on this?
Carson: I don't know that he has any particular obligation to do something for one specific group or another group. I think the best thing that he can possibly do that will help minorities is to enact policies that allow for growth of the economy. Because when you look at the employment rate for instance in the African-American community, it's abominable. And the policies that have been enacted have only made it worse. They have not made it better. So if he really wanted to be a hero in that community, let's start doing some things that make sense economically and get the money flowing. And that money will flow to the minority community, too, and I think that would be a wonderful thing for any segment of our society.
CP: You and your wife have successfully raised three sons. I know that you are very much aware of the trouble with black men in America, what advice can you share with black parents and raising sons? Have any of them ever been racially profiled? How did you deal with it?
Carson: Well we've taught our children that there are problems that sometimes can exist because of the color of your skin, particularly if you're in certain areas, and to be aware of those things. But we have also taught them from a very early age to be respectful of everyone and the fact of the matter is, if you're a law-abiding citizen, you're not doing anything that's disruptive and you are respectful of everyone, the chances of you having problems are extremely small. And for that reason none of them have had any problems.
CP: You retire from Johns Hopkins in June. What are your plans, where do you go from here?
Carson: Well, you know I will continue obviously working with our scholarship fund which is in all 50 states, putting in reading rooms all over the country particularly targeting Title I schools where a lot of kids come from homes with no books and they go to schools with no libraries. Those are the kids that are likely to drop out, we have to find a way to stop that because that is incredibly detrimental not just to the individual, but society. I will continue to work with the Henderson Hopkins Program. This is a program with which we use the resources of the university to help create a much better model for innercity education. I will continue to work with the private corporations that I work with. I'll continue on the speaking circuit. I've talked to a number of different television stations about doing something on a regular basis, I still sorting all that out. I'll continue to write books. And I hope to learn how to play the organ (laughs).