Life’s Lessons

12 min read

What can we learn about Ben Carson from his journey to Housing Secretary

On stage to debate for the Republican nomination for president were 16 people who thought they had to outshout each other—and one who obviously wanted to be the softest. Many needed to out-insult each other—and one felt compelled to show respect. And, of course, there were 15 who were white—and one who was not.

But it was not skin tone that most differentiated Dr. Ben Carson from his opponents. It was tone of voice.

The tone may not have been a successful tool in the televised auditions for the presidential nomination, but it may be valuable in the new role Carson will assume as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

At this writing, Ben Carson has not yet been approved as HUD secretary. But we don’t anticipate conflict there. Before he settles into the job and selects the FHA Commissioner and other key staff, it is difficult to get a handle on what his intentions will be. Carson is, after all, a complex man and, like most of us, full of contradictions. But reviewing Carson’s life via journalism, his statements, his writings and his Capitol Hill hearing, we can get some sense of the man’s priorities.

Heart Department
Perhaps what we missed most in this election was empathy, especially in the wake of a presidency that was built on it. What empathy there was in the 2016 Republican campaign often felt limited to an aura around the lectern Carson occupied. Empathy was also visible at Carson’s hearing for the new job and in his previous comments and writings. In an era of human megaphones, Carson is anything but a bloviator. In the era of non-stop talk machines and interruptions, he is a listener. In an era that lacks self-control, he appears eminently patient. (You would have to be to perform 52 hours of brain surgery, leading a staff of 55, wouldn’t you?)

The 15 cabinet departments in the executive branch of government can be broken into practical categories (though there is a good amount of crossover). There are the “Protection Departments” (State, Defense, Homeland Security, Justice); the “Business Departments” (Labor, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation); the “Preservation Departments” (Interior and Energy); the “Bank” (Treasury). And then there are the “Heart Departments” (Health and Human Services, Education, Veteran’s Affairs and HUD).

All the departments are involved in business in some way. All the departments provide a certain amount of protection. All affect the economy. But the Heart Departments are primarily focused on the needs of Americans, particularly the neediest Americans. Some historical developments—such as the subprime mortgage crisis—may make HUD appear to be business focused. But the statute that created the department as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” in 1965 stated HUD’s mission was to “create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD is working to strengthen the housing market to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.”

A brain surgeon is not going to approach any effort unprepared and try to scat sing his way through confirmation. In his prepared remarks to open his hearing, Carson said he challenged his students at John Hopkins not to just be doctors and heal illness, but to be “healers of society.” Similarly, his approach to HUD is holistic. To ensure social mobility “it’s more than just housing,” he said. “We must include the areas of healthcare, education, jobs and skills to do them, in addition to transportation. In order to provide access to quality housing for the elderly, disabled and low-income, we need to work across silos, and I intend to do that at HUD should you confirm me.” To Carson, not leaving anyone behind is “a moral and economic imperative.”

Self control
Perhaps what is most impressive about Carson is that, reviewing his early life, his restraint and pensiveness do not appear inherent. In fact, according to the stories of his youth, he was not born with his current demeanor; he learned it. And frequently the hard way.

Ben Carson was an angry young man and it is no wonder. He said at his confirmation hearing he believes in the “social determinants of health,” an increasingly popular term in the physical and mental health sector, that argues life’s chances are primarily influenced by living circumstances. Lack of decent housing can lead to higher levels of depression and anxiety, greater drug use, more use of emergency rooms at hospitals. Carson saw all of this first-hand growing up.

He first lived in the tough neighborhood of Southwest Detroit. When he was born, his mother Sonya was 13. When he was eight, she discovered her husband had another wife and family and divorced him. Ben was angry and discouraged and a poor student. He tells stories of threatening his mother with a hammer and attempting to stab a young friend, with tragedy only stopped by a protective belt buckle. He was scared of himself and locked himself in the bathroom with a bible, searching for the light. Without a husband, Sonya could no longer afford to live in a house in Detroit and moved with her boys into a family’s home in Boston. She was the model of a strong woman, working two or three jobs at a time and as a domestic at the same time, while managing to watch over and aggressively discipline Ben and his older brother. But somehow, despite an education that ended in third grade, Sonya had the wisdom to make books an everyday part of her boys’ lives and demand to see homework before it was turned in.

The family eventually moved back to their original home in Detroit (which was a great achievement for Sonya), and it was likely that Ben would turn to drugs or alcohol as relief from the difficulties that faced his family. Instead, his escape from impoverishment was books. Sonya required her boys to make a weekly trip to the Detroit library. She required them to read two books a week and write book reports. Ben was in his teens before he realized his mother couldn’t read.

By the time he was 13, he was awarded the highest academic honor in his school (only to hear his teacher bawl out the white students in front of him for letting a black child win the honor). Carson gained admission to Yale University, where he majored in psychology.

“I also came to realize that if people could make me angry, they could control me,” Carson said. “Why should I give someone else such power over my life?”

Carson’s views indicate he came away from his childhood experience believing that if, given his environment, he could achieve so much, everyone could—although everyone does not have a Sonya Carson in their life.

“I’m not interested in getting rid of the safety net; I’m interested in getting rid of dependency,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2015. “We need to understand what true compassion is to reach out to individuals who think that being dependent is reasonable as long as they feel safe. It’s not compassion to pat them on the head and say, ‘There, there. I’m going to take care of all your needs, your healthcare, your food.’ That’s the opposite of compassion.”

“To educate a man is to liberate him,” Carson has said.

When it comes to education, Carson has put his money where his speeches are. He and his wife Candy have supported two educational initiatives: the Carson’s Scholars Fund, which now awards $1000 scholarships to 500 students annually and has awarded 7,300 to date; and the Ben Carson Reading Project, which has created 160 reading rooms in schools across the country. One might assume that after Health and Human Services the department Carson would be most likely to lead would be Education. But that is not the case.

Two other life experiences seem to have had a profound impact on his point of view. It has been well-reported that Carson has an unusual ability to envision a three-dimensional view of the brain and by the age of 33 had risen to chairman of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins. He has reported that this rapid rise was questioned by more experienced staff. His fame came from his reputation as daring and willing to take on challenges others wouldn’t, such as becoming the first neurosurgeon to separate Siamese twins conjoined at the head. It was an amazing accomplishment, but it did not come quickly or without prior cost. Before the famous 1997 separation of the Banda twins from Zambia, joined at the top of their heads, he had separated the Binder Twins from Germany. They survived, but with significant neurological problems. The Makwaeba twins of South Africa did not survive. These operations were incredibly brave. The ones that failed had to be extremely disappointing to Dr. Carson. Reading through the details of these surgeries is not for the weak of stomach. They were followed by lots of self-examination by an introspective man. And yet he persisted and finally succeeded.

And then, in 2002, at the age of 51, Dr. Carson himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He worked closely with the team of surgeons at Hopkins that operated on him and reported he was within one millimeter of the malignancy metastasizing.

These extreme life experiences, the overcoming of seemingly unsurmountable obstacles and closeness to death (both of others and his own) seem to have made Carson a staunch advocate of self-reliance and determination. Among the views he’s come away with is that government does not need to play as large a role in supporting citizens as it now does. He wants to encourage people to have better lives, but believes that is best achieved on their own.

A transparent agenda
There is no glaring conflict of interest issue with Ben Carson. He is not someone who might return to the private sector after his public service and in any way benefit from his actions while serving. His conflict is internal. His combination of empathy and self-reliance is at loggerheads. This was evident at both his confirmation hearing and in other public speaking appearances, and leaves a lack of clarity about what we might expect from a HUD under his leadership.

“How would an agency with a $47 billion budget fare under someone who thought government spending should be cut, and that efforts to end segregation—a core HUD mission—are akin to ‘failed socialist experiments?’” reporter Alena Samuels wrote in the Atlantic Magazine.

“His Senate confirmation hearing did little to answer these questions,” Samuels continued, “as Carson both pledged to cut spending and to keep—or even expand— programs that are the hallmark of what HUD does.”

“I do believe government can play a very important role,” Carson said. “There are points of intervention, things we can do to make a difference in people’s lives.”

As the senators on the committee questioned Carson about a long list of programs they felt benefitted their constituents, he appeared to be behind each one. In his written statement and in his answers, he avoided being at all critical of rental assistance, community block grants and veteran homelessness programs, which he contended “needs more enhancements;” even Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which he had previously described as “social engineering” in a Washington Post editorial.

And yet, as Samuels reported, “When New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez asked Carson whether his ‘world view’ fit into HUD’s core mission, Carson defended his campaign pledges to cut back on government spending.”

On earlier occasions, Carson had argued that charities are better at providing for the needy than the government, expecting others to show the same generosity towards society as Candy and he have.

“Today, the government actually competes with many of these private-sector charities while still offering them tax deductions,” Carson wrote in 2012. “How does this wasteful duplication benefit government or us, its citizens? Certainly by creating huge government entitlement programs, the size and power of government increases dramatically. Before long, people generally depend on government for everything from healthcare to education, to a comfortable retirement, instead of looking to government for the protection of life and property, as well as providing public roads and public safety.”

Editorial writers in New York and Washington were not swayed by Carson’s hearing. The New York Times editorial page headline the next day was, “Ben Carson’s Warped View of Housing.” It complained, “his comment [on social engineering] betrayed a distressing ignorance of HUD’s mission, the laws under which it is supposed to operate and, more broadly, the history of housing segregation in the United States.”

The Washington Post headline read, “HUD job to pit Carson ideology against long-standing housing policy,” reporting the nomination “sets up what could be a collision between the nominee’s philosophical aversion to social safety-net programs and an agency that administers some of the government’s most expansive programs for helping minorities and low-income people.”

Both pieces seem to focus on public statements mostly made during the campaign and confirmation. Those may be the most traditional methods of judging who someone is, but maybe not the best. For now, until we learn more, I am going to bank on Ben Carson’s demeanor, his quiet sensitivity, and his challenging life experiences to guess how he will conduct business going forward. For those who have faced struggle, especially those of high intelligence, it is difficult to ignore or forget the struggle. As Carson assumes his role and learns about the intent and results of the HUD programs, as he hears the stories of those renters, buyers and borrowers who have benefitted from them, my hunch is his own struggle will be very present in his 3-D mind. I expect he will do the right thing. I expect him to lead with heart.