Is Ben Carson Right About The Black Lives Matter Movement?

Thoughts From A Philosopher Of Race

By Professor Quayshawn Spencer (University of Pennsylvania)

July 14, 2016             Picture: Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

This article is part of The Critique’s May/June 2016 Issue “Black Lives Matter (Part II): Understanding The New Movement For Racial Justice”

In Ben Carson’s September 3rd op-ed for the USA Today, “#BlackLivesMatter Misfire”, he voices his frustration with the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM). Carson wrote his opinion after BLM protested, and seriously disrupted, a Bernie Sanders rally.

Carson’s response was great insofar as it articulated a legitimate criticism of BLM, which is that BLM is “focused on the wrong targets.” According to Carson, the “wrong targets” for BLM are injustices that “take black lives one at a time,” such as “rogue police officers.”

Rather, according to Carson, the right targets for BLM are institutions that have “destroyed black lives not in the ones and twos, but in whole generations.” Carson then gives a laundry list of institutions that have destroyed, and are continuing to destroy, Black lives.

Carson names our public school system, the entertainment industry that glorifies violence and the devaluation of women (e.g. the recent movie Straight Outta Compton), our dangerous and drug ridden neighborhoods, failed national social policies (e.g. our poverty legislation), handouts from Democrats (e.g. section 8 housing, food stamps, etc.), and a lack of action from Republicans.

So, according to Carson, BLM should be holding protests at our boards of education, entertainment events that glorify violence and the devaluation of women, city halls, local crack houses, and Washington, DC; as opposed to presidential rallies for Bernie Sanders. In fact, Carson says that for BLM to protest Bernie Sanders rallies is “lunacy.”

While there is a lot to like about Carson’s argument, his conclusion that BLM is “focused on the wrong targets” is simply false, and, more importantly, his argument that it is true rests on false premises.

In logic jargon that means his argument is unsound—where a sound argument is an argument that has a true conclusion if all of its premises are true and all true premises. An unsound argument is an argument that’s not sound. Furthermore, since Carson is a master at rhetoric, it’s important for people to know that his argument is unsound and why it’s unsound.

So, what I hope to do here is show exactly why Carson’s argument is unsound, and, in addition, show why his conclusion is false using an argument with true premises. Hopefully, all of this will demystify BLM and put its philosophical justification on firm ground.

First, what is Carson’s argument? Well, in order to be charitable, we should reconstruct it so that its conclusion is true if all of its premises are true (what we call a valid argument in logic), and it captures the crux of what Carson wants to say. So here’s my attempt to do that:

(1) If BLM is not focused on the wrong targets, then it’s focused on institutions that destroy black lives in whole generations.

(2) BLM is only focused on “unjust treatment from police.”

(3) Unjust treatment from police takes black lives one at a time, not in whole generations (unlike our public school systems, failed national social policies, handouts from Democrats, etc.).


(4) So, BLM is focused on the wrong targets.

This is as good as one can make Carson’s argument. (1) is Carson’s sufficient condition for BLM focusing on the wrong targets, which he clearly expresses in his article. Carson expresses something like (2), but he needs the exact wording of (2) in order to construe BLM as focusing on all and only things that (he thinks) don’t destroy Black lives in whole generations.

Since BLM has shown great interest in unjust treatment from police, this is, in Carson’s view, a good candidate. Carson expresses something like (3), but he needs (3) exactly, because if unjust treatment from police is destroying Black lives in whole generations, then Carson has no reason to disagree with BLM focusing on that target according to his first premise! So, how many of Carson’s premises are true? Just one.

Carson’s first premise is fine by me, and the founders of BLM would be happy with it too. However, (2) is another story. The founders of BLM are crystal clear that the target of BLM is broader than this. According to their official website (click here to visit), BLM is a political movement that is about more than “extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes.” Rather, it’s a revival of “the Black liberation movement,” which is broadly focused on reversing “the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity,” especially in American society.

While it’s true that BLM started after George Zimmermann (a Hispanic American security officer of German descent) was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin (a Black American youth) in 2013, it’s important to note that BLM is about more than that. It’s about getting Black lives “basic human rights and dignity.”

There is a rich intellectual tradition behind the Black liberation movement, and a detailed and recent philosophical justification for it (if understood as described above) can be found in Tommie Shelby’s We Who Are Dark.

The fact that Carson’s second premise is false is not only supported by what the BLM creators say on the BLM website, but by what BLM activists have done to advance their cause. Many people, including Carson, think that BLM’s only focus is protesting unjust treatment by police, and police brutality in particular. But that’s a stereotype generated from disproportionately frequent media coverage of BLM’s police brutality events.

This is not to say that focusing on police brutality is not a major concern of BLM. It’s also not to say that focusing on police brutality is an inappropriate target for BLM (as Carson thinks). It’s just to say that it’s not all that BLM is focused on, or even most of what BLM is focused on.

To show this, I’m not going to recite what BLM says it focuses on, which can be found on its website. Rather, I’ll analyze the most recent months for which all BLM events are posted on its website as of the date that I’m writing this article: November 30, 2015. Those months are October and November 2015.

In October 2015, BLM organized 12 unique events. Here’s the breakdown of those events by type. There were four events focused on police brutality, two events focused on Black education, two events focused on civil rights, one event focused on using basketball to elevate Black youth, one event focused on the murders of transgendered Black women, one event focused on anti-Black racism in America, and one event focused on recruiting new BLM activists.

So, despite media coverage, LESS THAN HALF of BLM events in October 2015 were actually about police brutality. And even with respect to police brutality events, they’re not all protests or marches. For example, one police brutality event in October was just a dialogue at a Black church about policing in communities of color. The same pattern holds true for November 2015.

In November 2015, BLM organized 16 unique events. Four were focused on educating Black people on how to find affordable legal counsel, four were focused on corporate America (e.g. boycotting Black Friday), two were focused on police brutality, two were focused on racial inequalities in health and medicine, one was focused on mass incarceration, one was focused on for-profit colleges that exploit Black students, one was focused on New Jersey State legislators, and one was focused on anti-Black racism in America.

The clear pattern that’s arising is that LESS THAN HALF of BLM events are focused on police brutality. Rather, BLM events are overwhelmingly not focused on police brutality, but rather, on subtler ways that Black lives are deprived of basic human rights and dignity.

Now, Carson could object here. He could say that the data I present to undermine (2) are irrelevant because he was responding to how BLM was conducting itself before September 3, 2015. Perhaps BLM has changed its tune, and perhaps in response to his critique!

While this is a reasonable objection, it doesn’t hold up to the facts. Though it’s hard to get comprehensive data on BLM events before October 2015, just from looking at #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter, one can see plenty of BLM events that took place in August 2015 that weren’t about police brutality. For instance, on August 26th, there was a BLM event focused on liberating transgendered Black women. So, BLM simply doesn’t fit the stereotype that Carson has of it.

While undermining (2) is sufficient for showing that Carson’s argument is unsound, it’s important to show that (3) is false as well. The reason why Carson is wrong that unjust treatment from police is not something that destroys whole generations of Black lives is because he’s focused narrowly on “rogue police officers [that] take black lives one at a time.”

But that’s not the entirety of what constitutes unjust treatment from police. Another constituent is racial profiling, which unfairly makes a disproportional number of Black Americans criminals.

For instance, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated the Ferguson Police Department in 2014 and found that the way that Ferguson police enforced the law was deliberately designed to generate revenue for the city, and, moreover, its brand of law enforcement had disparate negative impact on Black Ferguson residents. In DOJ’s words:

“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices overwhelmingly impact African Americans. Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population. African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search. African Americans are more likely to be cited and arrested following a stop regardless of why the stop was initiated and are more likely to receive multiple citations during a single incident. From 2012 to 2014, FPD issued four or more citations to African Americans on 73 occasions, but issued four or more citations to non-African Americans only twice. FPD appears to bring certain offenses almost exclusively against African Americans. For example, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges. Notably, with respect to speeding charges brought by FPD, the evidence shows not only that African Americans are represented at disproportionately high rates overall, but also that the disparate impact of FPD’s enforcement practices on African Americans is 48% larger when citations are issued not on the basis of radar or laser, but by some other method, such as the officer’s own visual assessment”.

Furthermore, DOJ determined that the best explanation for the disparate negative impact of Ferguson’s law enforcement on Black Ferguson residents was the racial bias of police officers (and court staff), not racial differences in law infraction. In DOJ’s words:

“Our investigation indicates that this disproportionate burden on African Americans cannot be explained by any difference in the rate at which people of different races violate the law. Rather, our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African Americans. We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson. For example, we discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control”.

Now, since racial profiling unfairly makes a disproportional number of Black Americans criminals, and since over-criminalizing Black Americans destroys whole generations of Black lives (e.g. think about how it affects the Black American unemployment rate that Carson is rightly concerned about), it follows that unjust treatment from police is something that destroys whole generations of Black lives.

So, Carson’s argument is unsound twice over. Once because he’s wrong that BLM only focuses on unjust treatment from police, and again because he’s wrong that unjust treatment from police is not something that destroys whole generations of Black lives.

Even though Carson’s argument is unsound, that doesn’t imply that his belief that BLM is focused on the wrong targets is false. But it is false! And to see why, we need only consult the argument below:

(5) BLM is not focused on the wrong targets if it’s only focused on institutions that deprive Black lives of basic human rights and dignity.

(6) BLM is only focused on institutions that deprive Black lives of basic human rights and dignity.


(7) So, BLM is not focused on the wrong targets.

Let me start my defense of this argument with (6). Given my previous data on what BLM actually focuses on, it is easy to see that their events are always focused on institutions that deprive Black lives of basic human rights and dignity, whether it’s police brutality or for-profit colleges that exploit Black students. After seeing the data, even Carson has to admit this.

However, premise (5) is a bit more controversial. Here’s an attempt to defend it. Since BLM’s website states the mission of BLM as reversing the ways in which Black lives are deprived of basic human rights and dignity, focusing on institutions that deprive Black lives of basic human rights and dignity is not a wrong target for BLM, that is, unless BLM’s mission is itself wrong.

But here’s where Carson is likely to interject. Carson very well might disagree with BLM’s targets because he disagrees with their mission! How can this be? How can anyone committed to the US Constitution (as Carson is) disagree with BLM’s mission?

Well, it’s not that Carson disagrees that all Black Americans should have basic human rights and dignity, it’s that he does not think that the latter is among “the real sources of our hopelessness.” In other words, Carson is looking at the dismal state of Black America (e.g. having an unemployment rate that is twice as high as the national average, for evidence look here and here), and hypothesizing that the cause of this dismal state is the existence of multiple institutions that destroy whole generations of Black lives, such as inadequate public schooling in Black neighborhoods.

Though Carson’s objection to (5) is a good one, it’s actually non-threatening to BLM’s mission because what BLM is focusing on explains what Carson is focusing on. For example, why is it that public schools in Black neighborhoods are so inadequate?

BLM’s answer is that it’s due to a deprivation of basic human rights and dignity to Black lives. Furthermore, if we consider a good primary and secondary education a basic right that fulfills dignity for every American, which presumably we do, then BLM is right about its explanation because the mere existence of inadequate public schooling in Black neighborhoods constitutes a deprivation of a basic human right and dignity to Black lives.

So, BLM is not focused on the wrong targets, they’re focused on the same targets that Carson is focused on, it’s just that they have a deeper understanding of why those targets are the appropriate ones to focus on in order to uplift Black America.

Quayshawn Spencer
Quayshawn Spencer
Quayshawn Spencer, PhD is an Assistant Professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in the philosophy of race (esp. the nature and reality of race). He has a PhD in philosophy from Stanford University and a BA with honors in philosophy from Cornell University. In addition to Penn, he’s taught at MIT and the University of San Francisco. He has five original research articles on a philosophy of race topic. He has won six grants and four fellowships to conduct philosophy of race research. He has given 39 invited lectures on a philosophy of race topic, six of which were keynote lectures. Currently, Spencer has two books under contract with Oxford University Press: The Race Debates (an edited volume about race and medicine) and Four Views on Race (a co-authored monograph about the nature and reality of race). In addition, Spencer is writing a single-authored monograph on the nature and reality of race in the current United States, tentatively titled, The Case for Racial Pluralism.
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