It was 1965 and Ben Carson, an eighth grade black student in Detroit, was stunned.
Unable to control her anger, his teacher lashed out at white students for failing to outperform Carson, who had just been awarded the class’s highest academic achievement. In an interview last week, Carson described the teacher as being from a time when some people thought “how can a black person ever intellectually do better than a white person?”
“To her, it was the most abnormal thing that ever happened in the history of the world,” Carson said. “To me, I was determined I would show her.”
Nearly 50 years later, Carson — relatively unknown outside of conservative circles — is on the verge of becoming a political phenomenon. He placed second behind Mitt Romney in a CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday asking Republicans about their preferred presidential nominee in 2016. Though his support only reached 10% in the poll, Carson outpaced more high-profile potential presidential contenders like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
He’s gaining traction as an African-American in a party that is struggling to connect with minority communities. But Carson is remarkably checked when asked about how, to this day, he deals with racism.
“If somebody has a problem with the way that I look, more power to them,” Carson said. “Let them sit and stew in it. I just got so many more important things to do than to deal with that.”
That doesn’t mean he’s silent on the racial issues of the day. After last week’s violence in Ferguson, Missouri, Carson slammed President Barack Obama for contributing to poor race relations.
“I actually believe that things were better before this president was elected,” he told radio broadcaster Hugh Hewitt. “And I think that things have gotten worse because of his unusual emphasis on race.”
He’s offered provocative commentary on a wide range of other issues, telling FOX News in May that the Veterans Affairs scandal was a “gift from God to show us what happens when you take layers and layers of bureaucracy and place them between the patients and the health care provider.”
In a March interview with Breitbart, he compared the modern American government to Nazi Germany.
And at the 2013 Values Voters Summit, Carson said Obamacare is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”
The ‘PC police’
For Carson, abandoning political correctness is a central element of his persona — and something that’s winning fans in the GOP base. Carson recently appeared at an event for the Family Leader, an influential social conservative organization in Iowa.
“He was very well received, and enthusiastically well received,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the organization, who noted Carson spoke to 900 attendees about pressing domestic concerns including cultural issues, foreign policy, and his disdain for political correctness.
“It is like a breath of fresh air when he talks about not being politically correct and how he won’t be controlled by the ‘PC police’ and he will say what needs to be said,” Vander Plaats said. “That message really resonated.”
Carson is well known in the medical community — he’s a celebrated pediatric neurosurgeon — and Cuba Gooding, Jr. played him in the 2009 made for television movie: “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story.” But his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2013 catapulted him onto the national political stage.
With Obama sitting just a few feet away, Carson warned that the U.S. was heading down the same path as Rome.
“Moral decay, fiscal irresponsibility,” Carson said during his speech. “They destroyed themselves. If you don’t think that can happen to America, you get out your books and you start reading.”
Carson said 15 minutes after his remarks, organizers of the Prayer Breakfast called him and said the White House was “upset and that I needed to call and apologize. I said, ‘I spoke to the president after the Prayer Breakfast and he was quite cordial and didn’t seem upset. I don’t see why he would be upset, unless what I said applied to him.'”
His speech was embraced by GOP activists and radio talk show hosts. Carson became an instant political celebrity for conservatives.
“I expected a reaction, but I didn’t expect it to be that profound, quite frankly,” Carson said of his remarks at the Prayer Breakfast. “Obviously, it touched a chord with millions of people and I thought it would die down after a while, but instead of dying down it continued to build.”
Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist, said that Carson is “certainly someone to be taken seriously,” in the GOP primary, but added that this does not necessarily transfer to the general election. “In terms of appeal in a general election, there are comments he has made that can come back to haunt him,” she said.
Carson dismisses those who criticize him for his remarks, and said they are just blowing them out of proportion. Yet, Carson does acknowledge that he is trying to make a point when he speaks on the issues of the day.
“I try to talk about what I actually see that’s going on and this is what we need in America,” he said. “We need people who are not afraid to express themselves and who are not afraid to debate issues.”
Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, said he admires Carson as a surgeon and noted his son was inspired by one of Carson’s books to become a thoracic surgeon. But in terms of race relations, the two men are not on the same page.
“He is an extraordinary surgeon, extraordinarily passionate human being,” Brooks said. “But I disagree with the personalization of a set of policies that have been harmful, not only to African-Americans, but the country as a whole with any particular party. … Dr. Carson stands like a giant in the operating room, but in the civil rights arena we would love to have more conservation with him about our positions.”
From poverty to the operating room
Raised by a single mother with a third grade education, Carson rose from poverty and racial division to achieve success. Carson’s mother left his bigamist father when he was eight years old and, despite her inability to read, forced him and his brother to spend their days with books and focusing on their schoolwork.
Carson struggled in his early elementary school years. At 10, though, Carson said the most defining moment in his life occurred: He was the only child in his class able to identify an obsidian rock held up by his teacher.
“It said to me that everyone thinks you are dumb, but you are not dumb at all,” he said. “And that was really the beginning of change.”
The second most defining moment in his life almost led to tragedy. Carson got into an argument with a friend and, in a fit of rage, lunged at him with a knife. A belt buckle blocked the blow and saved his friend from injury. Carson said he ran away from the scene.
“I locked myself in the bathroom and started thinking about my life and I started praying,” he said. “In the three hours I stayed in that bathroom, I came to an understanding that to lash out at people is not a sign of strength, it was a sign of weakness.”
Eventually, Carson earned his undergraduate degree from Yale and went to medical school at the University of Michigan and joined Johns Hopkins when he graduated, becoming a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon.
On the campaign trail
Carson recently switched his voter registration from independent to Republican — a move he acknowledged was spurred on by a possible presidential run.
“If I decide to run, I need to run as a Democrat or Republican,” he said. “I don’t want to run as a third party candidate. And I would have to choose one of the parties.”
But the retired doctor noted that if he decides to seek the GOP presidential nomination, it would not be as a “traditional candidate.”
“I’m never going to be a politician,” he said. “I’m not going to listen to the people who’ve already tried … because then I’ll be them. I won’t be me. If I am not me, what would be the point, even if you won, of being in office under false pretenses?”
Carson further embraces the status as an outsider with no government experience, which he said is a positive with voters.
“I see it as a drawback if you want to continue going down the pathway of government controlling every aspect of our lives,” he said. “I don’t see it as a problem at all if somebody wants to reestablish the original intent in this country, which was a nation where the government conformed to the will of the people and not vice versa.”
It is this type of talk that has created a “buzz” among some conservatives in the early voting state of South Carolina, said GOP strategist Joel Sawyer.
“He is someone that activists are listening to, to a degree,” said Sawyer. “People are talking about him.”
Helping to fan the flames of a possible presidential bid was a documentary about Carson that his business manager, Armstrong Williams, paid to air in in 22 states and Washington, D.C., last month.
On the issues, Carson talks about revamping the tax structure, cutting back on government regulations, and asserting the U.S. as a world power who will “obliterate” ISIS, and stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When it comes to social issues, though, Carson emphasizes that there are more pressing issues the nation needs to address.
“I have likened America to a ship that’s about to sail off Niagara Falls,” he said. “And the social issues are like little barnacles on the side of the ship. There are a lot of people leaning over the edge saying we got to get that barnacle. No, we have got to turn the ship around. Until we get things moving in the right direction, get the economy moving … bring people out of poverty … deal with our energy resources in an appropriate way, get education back where it belongs … those are the issues that are critical. The social issues as far as I’m concerned they are personal issues for most people.”
Carson said if the right candidate emerges — which he describes as “somebody who understands business and economics and somebody who understands our place on the world stage and the responsibilities that we have” — he wouldn’t run. He is giving himself until May 1 to get into the presidential race.
In terms of being on the only black candidate publicly interested in seeking the GOP nomination, Carson reverts back to his time as a surgeon.
“I operate on the thing that makes the person who they are,” he said. “The skin doesn’t matter to me. I really don’t think those superficial characteristics have a place in society today.”