Ben Carson has a hood pass, and he knows how to use it.
“There was sirens, gangs, murders,” Carson said Sunday, recalling his childhood in Detroit. The doctor turned politician was addressing a group of more than 100 men and women, most of whom were black, on Chicago’s South Side, reminiscing about his upbringing in a rough environment. “I saw people lying in the street with bullet holes. The same types of things you see here in Chicago.”
For the last four decades, Republicans have performed dismally among black voters, perhaps because the candidates trotted out each election cycle are almost always blindingly white. But the GOP’s party platform has certain things in common with the average black voter—conservative beliefs on social issues, for one.
The connection between the two—African Americans and the Republican Party, which many black voters believe to be their mortal enemy—was perhaps no more apparent than on Sunday in an empty lot that will soon be home to a community center, thanks to the faith-based entrepreneurial spirit of Pastor Corey Brooks. That’s where the faithful gathered, and that’s where Brooks introduced Carson to his flock.
“Dr. Carson will take some questions,” Brooks announced. “And I think that’s a pretty courageous thing to do here on the South Side of Chicago, where you never know when someone’s going to pop off at the mouth.”
The crowd laughed.
Carson is the second presidential candidate to visit Brooks’s New Beginnings Church, situated in the city’s Woodlawn neighborhood and just down the street from a particularly violent housing complex—one hell of a distinction for a city with a murder rate as high as Chicago’s. Last month, Rand Paul spoke at the church, and Brooks has invited all active presidential candidate to make the trip down to 6620 South Martin Luther King Drive.
“I’m really pushing hard to get Jeb [Bush] down here,” Brooks told me after Carson’s speech.
The latest Bush to run for president would certainly be a big get, but considering it isn’t every day that Republicans run around in President Obama’s territory, any presidential candidate showing their face on South King should be a spectacle. Even so, Carson’s visit prompted a minuscule media response. One of the only video cameras present for his remarks was operated by a public access TV station, and Carson’s entire entourage was small enough to fit into an SUV.
A darling among conservative media, Carson isn’t a household name for the average member of Brooks’s congregation. Not that it matters to some in the black community, including one man who asked Carson about media coverage in Baltimore and Ferguson after the deaths of Freddie Gray and Mike Brown.
“Carnage and discord, that’s what sells,” Carson said.
In his remarks to the crowd, peppered with plenty of references to his Christian beliefs, Carson addressed the protests, riots, uprising, movement, or whatever you want to call it that has taken hold as national attention has shifted to the matter of black men being killed by police officers.
“Why do people burn their own neighborhoods down? Because there’s no economic development going on,” Carson said, before adding what three years ago would have been a stinging soundbite against Obama. “There’s a lot of change, but there’s not a lot of hope.”
Carson went on to describe a six-month, tax-free holiday that would allow corporations to bring money earned overseas back to U.S. banks without consequences from the IRS. The policy statement, one of the few specifics offered by any of the dozen-plus people running for the most powerful position in the world, was met with a murmur. But an addendum to the holiday did garner quite a bit of applause: Ten percent of the returning overseas corporate cash—which Carson has pegged at $2 trillion—would have to be used for “the creation of jobs for people on welfare and who are unemployed.”
For all his talk of bootstraps, Carson joined scores of Republicans and Democrats before him in promising money—this time from corporations and not the government—in helping to improve the dire economic circumstances in the black community. A 25-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department in the audience on Sunday agreed with Carson’s assessment that the rage on display in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere has its roots in poverty. The cop, a black patrolman who works in the city’s toughest neighborhoods, noted Carson’s political covenant, as well.
“Politicians know what the public wants to hear, and they come out here and tell you exactly that,” said the cop, who didn’t want to give his name because, well, “this is Chicago,” he said.
“This right here,” he said dismissively of Carson’s visit, “this was nothing.”
Nothing new. Except a new face. And some new politics. While Brooks is more than happy to introduce his congregation, and Woodlawn, and the South and West sides of Chicago, to Paul, Carson, and whoever else accepts the pastor’s invitation, Brooks knows he is also challenged with opening people up to something that for decades has been taboo in the black community: supporting Republicans.
Michael Jones, who made it for the tail end of Carson’s remarks and stayed for a plate of food provided by workers and volunteers at Brooks’s church, showed just how difficult that challenge may be.
“I vote Democrat,” he said when asked if he would ever consider voting for a Republican.
“Hillary, whoever. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I live in a Democrat community. I vote Democrat.”
By the time Jones made that comment, Ben Carson was long gone, his hood pass likely exchanged for a plane ticket.