Why Ben Carson is Right--and Wrong--on Race

Retired neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson, was asked one of the few questions on race at the first GOP Presidential debate last Thursday, and his answer provided a fascinating microcosm of our society's frustrating and challenging understanding--or misunderstanding--of how race impacts the daily lives of so many of our fellow citizens.

Fox News' Megan Kelly asked Dr. Carson what he would do to help race relations in the U.S. if he was elected president. He responded by saying, "I was asked by an NPR reporter once, why don’t I talk about race that often,” he said. “I said it’s because I’m a neurosurgeon. And she thought that was a strange response. And I said, you see, when I take someone into 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. The hair doesn't make them who they are. And it's time for us to move beyond that."

Dr. Carson is absolutely right when he says, "...I’m actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are." The essence of who we are, biologically, is not determined by our hair, or eye color, or skin color.

But the issue of "who we are" is far more complicated than just biology. It's determined by how and what we think, by how we treat one another, and by what we believe as human beings. It's determined not by what we are made of, but what we do with what we are, and how we live our lives.

The trouble with Dr. Carson's response is that while surgeons may have this sort of privileged glimpse into "who we are" when they have a patient on the operating table, there are far more instances in which the color of one's skin makes a significant difference in how one is treated. A partial list might include:

Unfortunately for Dr. Carson, even brain surgeons are not immune to noticing the color of one's skin when making determinations about medical treatments. According to a study by researchers in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, "There are significant racial and ethnic disparities" in how patients are treated in emergency rooms when admitted for mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), with minority patients being more likely to receive treatment from a resident rather than a specialist, and less likely to be referred for follow up care after being discharged from the hospital.

It shouldn't take a brain surgeon to understand that while race may be a "social construct," it is still real, and presents actual, tangible challenges, obstacles, and dangers to millions of Americans each and every day. And we should expect all candidates for the highest office in the land to recognize that they have an obligation to address race as more than a "skin deep" issue.