EXCLUSIVE: How to remedy America’s social ills? Exercise the mind’s power to choose, says Ben Carson

EXCLUSIVE: How to remedy America’s social ills? Exercise the mind’s power to choose, says Ben Carson
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Although most of my professional career has been dedicated to studying the physiological dimensions of the human brain, I have always been fascinated with the role that the human psyche plays in our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. So much so, in fact, that as an undergraduate I majored in psychology and at one point strongly considered becoming a psychiatrist, before ultimately making a decision to pursue a specialization in neurosurgery. I mention this because it frames the discussion that I want to begin about the dimensions of the problem of race in this country, and what I see as the best approach to transcending race as an issue that divides us and prevents us from moving forward as one nation under God.

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As a child growing up in a poor family headed by a single mother in the inner city of Detroit, I 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. Like many of today’s inner-city youths, I too faced a situation in which I did not have an abundance of positive male role models. And during those times, there was certainly no well-trodden path from the mean streets of Detroit to college and a successful career as a neurosurgeon.

But there were certain intervening events that were pivotal in helping to change the course of my life.

The first was that my mother, who could barely read herself, forbid my brother and me from watching television and insisted instead that we read books. Reading opened up whole new worlds for me, and both fertilized my imagination and fueled my aspiration to go beyond the confines of my physical environment. The second major intervening event was my acceptance of the wisdom of God. An incident in which I attempted to stab a classmate out of anger forced me to confront a dysfunctional attitude that, if unchecked, would impede my ability to succeed in school or realize my dream of one day becoming a doctor. I prayed to God to guide me in becoming more tolerant and forbearing.

There were certainly other societal and institutional dynamics that contributed to the course my life would take. My mother did, from time to time, accept welfare assistance when ends did not meet — but she also worked two or three jobs and was ingeniously resourceful. And societal changes concurrent with the civil rights movement helped to break down barriers and open doors for me that might not have otherwise been available.

But the major factor in how my life has turned out was — and is — my attitude and ability to choose the object of my concentration.

My views on race in this country start from that perspective. While I advocate for a colorblind society, I am by no means blind to the reality of racism. But again it comes down to a matter of focus. I believe that if we focus on what divides us rather than what unites us, we impede our ability to transcend differences and work together constructively toward a better future for all Americans.

I realize that the government can play a role in providing a social safety net, and it is one of the things that I really love about our country. But I am much more focused on how high we can rise than how far we can fall. The government has spent more than $19 trillion by some estimates on the “war on poverty” since 1965. And yet the social pathologies plaguing our society are far worse today than they were when I was a child growing up in Detroit. This points to the fact that the progressive model has largely failed — and it is past time that we try something new.

My view is that, rather than attempting to fight against poverty, we should be encouraging growth. The mental shift may be subtle, but it has profound implications for how we approach public policy. The assumption that people are “poor” grounds them in a mentality that reduces agency and creates more dependency. And more tragically, it obscures the reality that there is an abundance of opportunity that is ready for people who want to avail themselves of it.

And so my focus of my efforts — through the Carson Scholars foundation and in countless speeches before young inner-city audiences over the years — is to open the doors to possibility. The desire to do something provides the seed for its ultimate fruition. As a society we should, by nurturing that desire through programs and policies that invest in people, encourage them to achieve their God-given potential.

This calls for a new model in public policy that departs from the traditional progressive model. What I am advocating is that civil society — including the corporate sector, education community, the religious establishment and philanthropic institutions —invest in people, to empower them with tools in the form of education and character development, role models, and concrete pathways into productive and rewarding work.

The dilemmas of race and entrenched, intergenerational poverty have proven intractable despite the mountains of money that have been poured into solving them over the past 50 years. Moving beyond them will require a paradigm shift from focusing on attacking the problems to creating conditions that foster opportunity and growth.

 

Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, is a candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination.