Ben Carson's success: Is conservative white guilt driving it?

Story highlights

  • David Wilson says Dr. Ben Carson is the Republican Party's latest great black hope
  • He says Carson's popularity makes conservatives feel good about themselves and their views

David A. Wilson is the co-founder and executive editor of TheGrio.com, a site dedicated to news and perspectives that affect and reflect black America. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @mrdavidawilson. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Dr. Ben Carson is the Republican Party's latest great black hope. New polls released this week show that the neurosurgeon turned politician is now sitting on top of the crowded GOP presidential field alongside Donald Trump. The soft-spoken Carson, who has never held a political office, is electrifying the GOP's base, and ironically, he's doing it with a campaign that conjures the excitement of a doctor's visit.

David A. Wilson
While conservatives have long accused their political counterparts of white liberal guilt, those on the right are showing their own brand of it. The modern day Republican Party has always had a strained relationship with people of color, but the election of President Obama has deepened the rift.
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    Many in the GOP and tea party have been accused of bigotry for denying the legitimacy of and being unwilling to work with the nation's first black president, although many conservatives will argue that their disdain for the President has nothing to do with his race, but with his politics. Even so, the "racist" label has begun to take a toll on the party's brand and, I believe, their conscience.
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    However, Carson is their latest "magic negro;" he is someone who makes them feel good about themselves and their beliefs. The divine intervention that transformed him from being a violent, quick-tempered black boy in an impoverished Detroit to a celebrated Yale-educated brain surgeon is what evangelicals' dreams are made of. He presents himself as an example of how minorities can lift themselves up from poverty through God and with little government intervention. Although some of the accounts of his childhood are now being questioned, it may do little damage to his reputation with his growing conservative fan base.
    His harsh criticism of Obama, the Black Lives Matter movement, Muslims, and Mexican immigrants provides the political right with racial cover. Their logic is that if a black man says it, then it can't be racist. Their support of him is proof to progressives that they too are willing to vote for a black man. If you're trying to boast your racial tolerance credibility these days, "I'm voting for Ben Carson" sounds a lot more convincing than "some of my best friends are black."
    However, Carson is not a new phenomenon. Clarence Thomas has occupied this role from the bench for decades now. But since 2008, Republicans have been searching for their version of Barack Obama. They first made Michael Steele the chairman of the RNC in 2009. Steele's goal was to prove that not only are conservatives not racists, they can speak in outdated hip-hop slang too. When Steele didn't do the trick, the party threw him under the bus by painting him as a "hood rich" black man who mismanaged the party's finances by using their credit cards on private jets, limo rides, and strip clubs.
    Then came the 2012 elections and the party's love-affair with Herman Cain. Cain was a conservative radio host and the former head of Godfather's Pizza turned presidential candidate. Cain was most effective with conservatives when portraying their political enemies as the true oppressors and by challenging Obama's blackness. Cain would suggest that African-Americans are ignorant sheep held captive on a "Democrat plantation." However, Cain's history of womanizing and potential sexual harassment was too much for the party to abide.
    But for many African-Americans, Thomas, Steele, Cain and now Carson's popularity with the right is reminiscent of an old racial dynamic. During and post slavery, white slave owners and employers would often provide special treatment to select blacks, who in turn would help assuage their white guilt. It became the role of these black servants -- who were often deemed a "credit to their race" -- to heap praise on the "good" and "God-fearing" white boss, often at the expense of their own people.
    To be clear, the Republican Party should be encouraged to search for African-American candidates and political stars. What's offensive is that they are propping up inept and inexperienced blacks to run for the highest office in the land.
    Carson, like Cain, is hardly Barack Obama's political equal. He lacks serious political knowledge and at times appears lost when pressed on details of his domestic and foreign policy agendas. His skin color and his willingness to criticize other black and brown people is at the heart of his appeal to the right. The Republican Party is now engaging in political affirmative action of the worst kind and in the most visible way.
    Carson has excelled at telling the far right precisely what they like to hear and think. He doesn't challenge their beliefs, he confirms them. News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch -- the foremost expert on all things black -- went so far as to say that Carson would be a "real black president."
    No one can confidently predict what will ultimately become of Ben Carson's campaign. However, with the caucus and primary season fast approaching, we'll know soon enough if his popularity with the base is for the benefit of their conscience or if he truly has their confidence.