For the first 55 minutes of the first Republican primary presidential debate, it was easy to forget that Ben Carson was a participant.
The soft-spoken neurosurgeon and political neophyte looked uncomfortable among a row of political bona fides and one charismatic billionaire tycoon.
Even supporters must have been wondering if the good doctor, who willingly concedes gaps in his knowledge about foreign policy, was a bit out of his league during the prime-time debate.
But all that changed, around an hour in, when moderator Megyn Kelly asked Carson about the state of race relations in America.
Carson seemed almost relieved at the question and offered an inspired response.
“I was asked by an NPR reporter once, why don’t I talk about race that often? I said it’s because I’m a neurosurgeon, and she thought that was a strange response.” He continued, “I said, you see when I take someone to the operating room, I’m actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are. The skin doesn’t make them who they are.… We need to move beyond that.”
His remarks were met with spirited applause from the audience and gratified nods from his onstage opponents.
Perhaps because it was a refreshing diversion from an evening of chest-puffing, bluster and canned retorts.
Or maybe because his concise and optimistic response resonated with the huge swath of Americans who are only too eager to do as Carson suggested – transcend the politics of race.
But even Carson, whose response was limited to 60 seconds, knows that bridging the racial divide in real and lasting ways is complicated. It requires a lot more from ordinary citizens, black and white, than just applause.
And it demands an approach that doesn’t ignore racial discord, nor merely appease left-wing motivated grievance movements (such as those represented by the Black Lives Matter movement), but insists on tangible and comprehensive solutions to confront systemic problems that long precede the current strife.
That might be why Carson isn’t letting his lofty message about race relations be his last word on the matter.
It seems in the weeks since the debate he’s been injected with a desire to bring issues of race to the forefront of his campaign in a manner that is both productive and educational.
“Of course black lives matter,” Carson declared during a campaign visit to Harlem, where he advocated for conservative solutions to the challenges of poverty, dependency and lack of mobility.
“But instead of people pointing fingers at each other and just creating strife, what we need to be talking about is: How do we solve problems in the black community?”
As the only African-American from either party in the race for the White House, Carson might be the only candidate who can ask such a question and still be perceived as credible. And Carson knows a few things about the problems of which he speaks.
In a recent commentary in the Hill, Carson recounted growing up poor with a single mother in Detroit, where he “became intimately familiar with some of the social pathologies that plague these communities: poverty, poor education, criminal recidivism and involvement with the prison system, and the pernicious cycle of teenage motherhood.”
For Carson, the pathway to breaking down racial and socioeconomic barriers was “attitude and ability to choose the object of my concentration.”
But Carson is a remarkable man. And the pathologies he identifies – the ones that result in inequality of opportunity and dependency among minorities – require a public policy shift that emphasizes economic growth, supports a strong civil society to “invest in people, to empower them with tools in the form of education and character development,” and a renewed societal focus on the importance of strong families.
It’s not at all incompatible for Carson to declare, as he did in a recent interview, that in our effort to move beyond race, “The first thing we need to do is to start talking about it.” Honestly.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.