Before today, Ben Carson was far from the voice of reason in the Republican party. The brain surgeon and presidential candidate has purveyed theories like “Obamacare is worse than slavery” and Obama’s America is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
Now, however, Carson has the distinction of being the lone Republican candidate to be honest and plainspoken about the fact that racism was the motive for the Charleston church shooting.
How we got here is a sad indictment of American politics, where candidates would rather shove their fist in their mouths or speak in riddles than risk upsetting anyone with the reality of racism.
It started yesterday afternoon. Just before Rand Paul took to the stage of the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, where a crowd of evangelical conservatives waited for him to speak, police arrested Dylann Storm Roof. A 21 year old white supremacist, Roof had, the night before, walked into a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat among its congregation for a time, and then opened fire, murdering nine of them.
It seemed obvious that Paul would address the tragedy before the self-anointed “Faith and Freedom Coalition.”
If the Republican Party is truly shifting to appeal to new (i.e., less white) constituencies, it is Paul who is helping to lead the way by openly discussing things Republicans of primaries past wouldn’t touch, like the failed war on drugs, criminal justice reform, and the fact that “race…skew[s] the application” of justice in America.
But, when Paul opened his mouth to discuss the terrorist attack in Charleston, what came out was a confusing string of words designed to assure the Christian crowd that none of it would’ve happened if more Americans were like them.
“What kind of person goes into church and shoots nine people?” he asked. “There’s a sickness in our country, there’s something terribly wrong, but it isn’t going to be fixed by your government. It’s people straying away, it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from. And I think that if we understand that, we’ll understand and have better expectations of what we get from our government.”
Paul didn’t say anything about Roof’s confederate flag license plate, his pro-apartheid emblazoned jacket, or his blatant act of domestic terror.
Ted Cruz, as Talking Point’s Memo’s Brendan James put it, “kinda dipped his toe in,” to the topic of race when he held a moment of silence for the victims and said, “Today the body of Christ is in mourning that a sick and deranged person came and prayed with a historically black congregation for an hour, and then murdered nine innocent souls.”
The following day, the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s event was still going. Chris Christie took to the stage and acknowledged that the “conduct” of the shooter was “depraved [and] unthinkable,” but “only the goodwill and the love of the American people can let those folks know that that act was unacceptable, disgraceful that we need to do more to show that we love each other.” He said nothing about race.
Jeb Bush, at the same event, said, “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” After his speech, Bush told The Huffington post, “it was a horrific act and I don’t know what the background of it is, but it was an act of hatred.” Asked again if race was behind the attack, Bush said, “I don’t know. Looks like to me it was, but we’ll find out all the information. It’s clear it was an act of raw hatred, for sure. Nine people lost their lives, they were African-American. You can judge what it is.”
Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal similarly evaded the issue, while Marco Rubio ignored the shooting altogether, save for a polite Tweet, but spoke of his love for the Second Amendment during his Thursday speech to the Faith and Freedom crowd.
Lindsey Graham, who is the Senator from South Carolina, initially suggested the persecution of Christians was as likely a reason for the shootings as racism. “There are real people out there that are organized to kill people based on race. This guy is just whacked out. But it’s 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.” On Friday, however, while visiting Charleston, Graham had made a shift. He told The New York Times’ Ashley Parker, “the only reason these people are dead is because they’re black.”
Rick Perry on Friday told Newsmax “this was a crime of hate. We know that.” But the former Texas governor criticized president Obama’s call for gun control. “So I mean there are a lot of issues here underlying this that we as a country need to have a conversation about rather than just the knee-jerk reaction of saying, ‘if we can just take all the guns away, this won’t happen.’”
During an appearance on MSNBC, Martin O’Malley acknowledged race as the motivating factor but did so timidly. “From the reports I read, and let’s be honest with one another, the facts are still evolving here. I mean, it would appear that the racial motivation was certainly a big part of what happened here.”
In contrast, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sounded like civil rights activists.
Clinton said that in order to make sense of the shooting, “we have to be honest—we have to face hard truths about race, violence, guns and division,” and offered words of comfort from Dr. Martin Luther King.
Sanders was even more direct.
“The Charleston church killings are a tragic reminder of the ugly stain of racism that still taints our nation,” he said in a statement. “While we have made significant progress in advancing civil rights in this country, we are far from eradication racism.”
But it was Carson who stuck out amid the cowardly tongue-twisting of the majority of his party’s candidates with his straightforwardness.
"Racial based hate is still very much alive as last night so violently reminds us,” he wrote on Facebook. “I fear our intolerance of one another is the new battle ground of evil. Today many feel it is ok to hate someone who thinks different than you do…As a brain surgeon I can assure you that all of our brains look the same, no matter what our skin color or party affiliation.”
And so here we are, with Ben Carson—the right-wing sideshow who, despite competitive polling, could never truly be taken seriously as a candidate because of his proclivity for voicing off-the-rails theories and his complete lack of political experience—is teaching the rest of the Republican field how to sound like a human being when discussing a tragedy caused by racism in America. The real absurdity of American politics is that the people running for office are more often than not the ones stupid enough to believe that they can only win if they are so agreeable that they ignore reality altogether, fearing that acknowledging its ugliness might reflect it onto them.
Perhaps that’s why Carson felt free to say the truth before poll-testing it, and without insulating it in caveats.