The portrait used to hang in the hallway, welcoming children and parents to the Archbishop Borders School in Baltimore: a smiling Dr. Ben Carson in surgical scrubs, rubbing together the careful, steady hands that helped him become the nation’s most famous black doctor.
“The person who has the most to do with your success is you,” it reads.
That was before Carson’s presidential bid, before he withdrew from the race and endorsed Donald Trump, and before he was tapped to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was before the president failed to condemn white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. And before Carson pushed policies critics say walk back civil rights protections for those living in subsidized housing.
“I took it down,” said Principal Alicia Freeman of the portrait she’s since moved from the school’s second floor hallway to a less visible spot inside a reading room bearing Carson’s name. The doctor’s inspirational message now feels hostile, she said
“He was starting to become offensive.”
Carson’s story of climbing out of poverty to become a world-renowned surgeon was once ubiquitous in Baltimore, where Carson made his name. In some schools his memoir was required reading, an illustration of the power of perseverance. For a working-class, majority African-American city wracked by racial division and neglect — where a baby born in a wealthy white neighborhood is expected to live two decades longer than one in a poor black area — Ben Carson was hope.
But his role in the Trump administration has added a complicated epilogue, leaving many who admired him feeling betrayed, unable to separate him from the politics of a president widely rejected by African-Americans here. In the last presidential election, nearly 85 percent of city voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton.
“The Trump virus is weakening Ben Carson’s image,” said Bishop Frank Reid, a former pastor at Baltimore’s Bethel AME Church who met Carson at Yale, where both received their bachelor’s degrees. Carson is still respected, Reid said. “But he is no longer the hero he once was.”
Carson declined to be interviewed for this story. Instead, he sent a written statement.
“I understand what it means to be poor because I grew up poor,” the statement said. “I was fortunate to have my mother who was my compass – always steering me on course, helping me to see beyond our circumstances. That’s what I hope to do for the millions of low-income families HUD serves.”
Carson was born in Detroit, but Baltimore is the city that claims him. He rose to fame for his groundbreaking surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and launched his scholarship program here. Carson would sometimes arrange for high school students to visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum on the city’s east side, where a figure in his likeness stands glossy and smiling in a white lab coat and stethoscope, in the middle of the Famous Marylanders display.
“This young African-American who grew up in poverty and could have been put in jail or suspended from school made something great of himself. It was the American Dream,” Reid said. “We believed he could walk on water.”
Emmanuel Williams, 33, grew up in Northwest Baltimore. He learned about Carson in elementary school, a few years after Carson grabbed headlines for successfully separating conjoined twins attached at the skull.
“He was taught during Black History Month,” Williams said. “And everyone was so proud because it was happening here in Baltimore. It was mythic.”
“Sometimes I think the country looks down on us,” he said. “So to have such a brilliant person who’s making history and making these great medical advancements in Baltimore? He was our crown jewel, and he was here.”
Since taking the reins at HUD, Carson has proposed sweeping rent increases for the poorest subsidized housing tenants, and has begun dismantling key Obama-era regulations designed to address racial segregation. Carson has considered stripping anti-discrimination language from the department’s mission statement, and voiced strong support for implementing work requirements for housing aid recipients. In a radio interview shortly after being confirmed, Carson said poverty “is a state of mind.”
Now, Williams said, “people feel betrayed.”
“He can’t come back from this,” he said.
The seeds of Carson’s approach to policy are scattered throughout his memoir. He has long promoted self-sufficiency and enthusiastically embraced the bootstrap ideology popular with conservatives.
“Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reaction to them,” Carson wrote.
But those messages, now coming from a politician, are being received differently.
“There’s a certain consistency to his message, it’s just the language is now different,” said Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s first elected African-American mayor. Carson and Schmoke, now the president of the University of Baltimore, have been friends for decades.
“It’s more political, more partisan, and in my view, it’s harsher,” he said.
Schmoke said Carson’s achievements and philanthropic work haven’t been entirely eclipsed by his association with the Trump administration. But Carson’s political turn has changed the way many people see him.
“You can’t take away the fact that he’s done outstanding things for people throughout his life, that can’t be erased,” Schmoke said. “But I do think there’s clearly more people who view him through a political lens and that affects how he’s viewed in this community.”
Shaun Verma, a Ben Carson Scholarship recipient from Georgia, says Carson’s use of his story of hard work and determination to justify scaling back the safety net for the same communities that raised and revered him “is really disappointing.”
“He gave funding to inner city schools with big African-American populations, and opened reading rooms with the message that through education we can fight poverty and discrimination, and he was looked up to because he escaped his circumstances,” said Verma, who recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University and now lives in New York.
At 15, Verma founded MDJunior, a nonprofit that aims to improve health care accessibility to underserved communities. As a Carson scholar he attended board meetings and banquets, and got to know Carson personally. Carson’s policies, Verma said, have “tainted his long career and commendable service. It’s hard to associate all this with a person I looked up to for years.”
Some Maryland conservatives embrace Carson’s transition to politician. Antonio Campbell, a professor of political science at Towson University and state chairman for Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign, said he “remains impressed.” Those disappointed with his performance as HUD secretary likely feel that way because of fundamentally divergent values, he said.
“The question is, what is the role of government?” said Campbell, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate against Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. When assistance is scaled back, those accustomed to the status quo are bound to be disappointed, he said, adding that Carson “is learning” how to sell his policies to skeptics.
As a child, growing up in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood in a Maryland suburb, Boateng Kubi saw Carson as the embodiment of possibility.
“He’s one of the first people who truly indicated that black boys, black children, have the right to scientific curiosity,” said Kubi, a rising second-year student at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and president of the school’s chapter of the largest association for minority medical students.
Kubi calls Carson’s policy proposals “shocking.”
“It feels like he’s neglecting the communities he came from, the people who grew up admiring him, who might not have all the money in the world,” he said. “I no longer speak of wanting to be the next Ben Carson.”
Carson has come back to Baltimore in an official capacity only three times since becoming HUD secretary. Last month the department gave $144 million in revitalization grants to five cities, including Baltimore. But for the announcement Carson sent a representative to the Perkins Homes housing complex 40 miles from HUD headquarters, opting instead to go to Flint, Michigan.
Carson doesn’t send groups to the wax museum anymore, said co-founder Joanne Martin. But his figure still gets plenty of attention.
Martin has heard her share of complaints about the figures in her museum: Martin Luther King Jr. is too short. Frederick Douglass is too light-skinned. But no figure has been nearly as controversial as Carson’s.
“There have been objections to him being in the museum,” she said. “People have posted on our website demanding that we remove him.”
Martin refuses. He’s earned his place in history as a doctor, Martin said, and she’s committed to honoring his contributions to medicine.
But she says she feels uneasy about Carson’s next chapter, and made a deliberate decision not to update his placard to include any information about his political life.
“We include figures of people who fought for civil rights and appreciated that struggle,” she said. “That’s not the person he is today.”
For two and a half years, Ja’mel Armstrong and Matt Ness have jointly led One Church, a congregation striving to be diverse in a neighborhood in Louisville, Ky., that is more interracial than most.
It’s a work in progress, they acknowledge, but the African-American and white co-pastors say they believe their congregation, which is close to 50 percent black and 50 percent white, is more fulfilling than the more racially segregated churches they used to lead.
“On our own, we just didn’t feel like that’s who we were meant to be,” said Ness, who formerly led a mostly white church. “The picture we believed in was much broader than the local church I was pastoring and the local church Ja’mel was pastoring.”
The co-pastors’ congregation is part of the Evangelical Covenant Church — a small denomination that claims to be one of the most diverse in the country. One Church is part of a trend reported by scholars this month: Multiracial churches are on the rise and so is the percentage of U.S. congregants who attend them.
The percentage of U.S. multiracial congregations almost doubled between 1998 and 2012, from 6.4 percent to 12 percent, according to a study published in June in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. In the same period, the percentage of U.S. congregants attending an interracial church has reached almost one in five, advancing from 12.7 percent to 18.3 percent. The 2012 statistics are the latest available.
Co-authors Kevin Dougherty, a sociology professor at Baylor University, and Michael Emerson, provost at North Park University, defined multiracial congregations as ones in which no single racial or ethnic group constitutes more than 80 percent of the people in the pews.
But the co-authors point out that interracial congregations have long faced a number of challenges. And their recent findings show that while the average percentage of black congregants in multiracial congregations has increased, the percentage of Latinos in those kinds of churches has decreased in the same period.
“When you bring groups, different ethnic groups, together in a congregation, they come with different cultures, and those cultures include all types of expectations,” said Dougherty, citing music styles and food choices. “To help them develop a sense of shared identity above and beyond those cultural differences is a key part of the adaptability necessary for a multiracial congregation to succeed.”
Ness, co-pastor of the Louisville church, alternates preaching with Armstrong. He said before One Church opened its doors, they formulated a nontraditional approach to music. The worship team includes a gospel-style keyboardist, a blues, rock and country guitarist and a jazzy drummer and bassist. Singers represent a range of genres.
Ja’mel Armstrong is a pastor at One Church, an interracial congregation of the Evangelical Covenant Church, in Louisville, Ky. Photo courtesy of One Church
“We didn’t want to be defined by a particular style and so we didn’t tell you to stand up. We didn’t tell you to lift your hands. We didn’t tell you how to worship,” said Armstrong. “The goal was: If you are naturally contemplative in your worship style, then you be that. If you are naturally expressive, then you be that.”
It didn’t work for everyone. Armstrong said there was a gradual “mass exodus” from the 250-attendee first service in January 2016, with the congregation dropping to about 50. The congregation has since doubled to 100 after attracting new congregants.
The Rev. Michael Davis, the African-American teaching pastor at 10-year-old Downtown Church in Memphis, Tenn., said intentionality is key to multiracial churches. His congregation strives to have leaders of different races regularly preaching and making announcements. The church avoids identifying with political parties and instead seeks to foster an environment where various viewpoints can be aired.
“So nobody is trying to suffocate the identity of any of our minorities,” said Davis, who co-leads the fledging congregation with its white founder, Richard Rieves. “It’s intentionality, it’s empowerment and it’s sacrifice.”
The congregation, which Davis calls a “multiracial/class plant” or offshoot of the mostly white Second Presbyterian Church, meets in Clayborn Temple, a historic church that once housed a predominantly white congregation and later a mostly black one.
But Davis acknowledges that his Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation that is 70 percent white and 30 percent minority (mostly blacks but including some Asians and Latinos) hasn’t achieved all its milestones toward integration, including among its smaller community groups attended by some of the 300 who worship together on Sunday.
“Are we doing it perfectly?” Davis said. “No. Because there are some times where I have to talk to some of my groups that are predominantly white and say, ‘How do we get more diversity?’”
As they strive for inclusiveness, leaders of multiracial churches say they sometimes feel like they are on their own without many role models.
Worshippers gather at the Downtown Church, a multiracial congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn. Photo courtesy of Downtown Church
Ness, 39, who has pastored for 16 years, said, “I feel like I’m brand new at my job when I started this.” Armstrong, 38, agreed that the nontraditional church stands out from others: “We almost feel a lot of times that we’re on an island.”
The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a Chicago Theological Seminary professor, informally polled former students and found they have seen evidence of the new survey’s findings about the growth of interracial congregations.
“One woman graduate who identified as white indicated that she had ‘pastored a black church for seven years,’” said Thistlethwaite, whose seminary is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. “A number of graduates emphasized, however, that there have been congregations that have been racially diverse for many years, with racially diverse pastoral leadership.”
The survey, based on data from the National Congregations Study, also found an increase in black clergy leading multiracial congregations, rising from less than 5 percent in both 1998 and 2006 to 17 percent in 2012.
The Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College, said the willingness of white congregants to join churches with black pastors is a positive sign, given the long history of segregated Sunday morning services.
“Although white people have always been willing to appropriate style and music from black churches, they have resisted black leadership,” Gilkes said. “This new moment in American religious life could be quite helpful in countering many negative current events in the area of race relations.”
Despite the challenges of interracial cooperation, Davis said, he sees rewards as he helps lead his Memphis congregation.
“I experience the body of Christ more, the wider scope of it, and so it broadens my perspective of who the Lord is,” he said. “Being in a multiracial church, you see the beauty of different cultural backgrounds, different walks of life.”
If you go strictly by the official account, heatstroke was the cause of death for University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair. McNair died earlier this year following a grueling practice in which training staff failed to properly diagnose and treat his condition.
But there’s another culprit – or at least a contributing factor – that should not be overlooked.
As I argue in my forthcoming book – “From Exploitation Back to Empowerment: Black Male Holistic (Under) Development Through Sport and (Mis) Education” – what threatens black college athletes such as McNair is not just the brutal treatment to which they are subjected on the field.
Rather, it is a long-standing and deadly stereotype in American society that views black males as subhuman and superhuman all at once.
This stereotype, which is complex and has many layers, holds that black male athletes have superior athletic abilities that enable them to excel at high levels in sports such as football. The stereotype also holds that black males have a distinct physicality that allows them to endure extreme amounts of pain.
This is the same myth that was used to justify the enslavement and mistreatment of black people in America from before the Civil War through today’s era of mass incarceration. In fact, a case can be made that there are many parallels between the exploitation of black student-athletes today and how black labor was exploited during American slavery.
Although such terms as “beasts” are widely embraced in mainstream culture and in some instances by black athletes themselves, such as Marshawn Lynch, whose “Beast Mode” clothing line is drawn from his nickname, these terms are still harmful. This is especially the case in sports, where masculinity is equated with toughness, playing through pain and not giving up.
It may be true that these ideas are applied to male athletes in general. But these views impact black males even more due to their unique experiences in the United States. Just as they did during the days of chattel slavery, I argue that deeply embedded stereotypes about the physical capacity of black individuals to endure pain results in their perpetual mistreatment in the sports arena.
This is what enables sports organizers and coaches to present college sports to black males as a viable way to make it in society.
The view of black males as super-human is present in arenas other than sports. It lurks behind many of the police killings of black men of late. This was highlighted in the infamous police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, when police officer Darren Wilson described the 18-year-old Brown as a “demon” and “Hulk Hogan”-like.
With both stereotypes – subhuman and superhuman – in play, black males within sport and beyond are systematically dehumanized and consequently deprived of the love, care and attention that should come with their humanity.
The large amounts of money being generated in college football, along with the increased commercialization and celebrity flair associated with the sport, creates an illusion of fun, American grit and a unique brand of entertainment.
But behind all the glitz and glamour are factors that contribute to the exploitation of athletes. These factors also result in undetected or undeserved – and entirely preventable – long-term health problems such as depression and high blood pressure, and in some instances, deaths.
The need for reform
In terms of medical coverage, colleges are not required to assist college athletes beyond their athletic eligibility years even though injuries they suffer in college can affect them for the rest of their lives.
Over the past several decades, organizations such as the National College Players’ Association have advocated for increased medical coverage and protections for college athletes. The founder of the NCPA, former UCLA player Ramogi Huma, established the advocacy group after he discovered that the NCAA prevented UCLA from paying medical expenses from injuries that occurred during summer workouts.
University of Maryland President Wallace Loh recently stated that the university had accepted “legal and moral” responsibility in the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair. That’s a step in the right direction.
An acceptance of responsibility is not enough, though. Serious systemic reform and a change in culture is needed. These changes must address racism and racist stereotypes that lead to mistreatment of black athletes.
U.S. society must also confront its unhealthy obsession with sports glory, commercialism and overall neglect of athletes’ rights and well-being.
One important reform that should be adopted immediately to benefit all college athletes is to require all medical staff for teams be independent from coaches’ and athletic department authority. This was something reportedly proposed and rejected at the University of Maryland.
There should also be an advocacy group separate from the NCAA to help college athletes negotiate with the colleges they attend for improved working conditions related to safety and their overall well-being. This includes an improved academic experience, mental health support, and help with making the transition to their life after sports.
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