Few Americans will ever forget how my mayor, the former mayor of New York City, the People’s Mayor Post 9/11, Rudolph Giuliani, took great pains to shred the résumé of then Senator Barack Obama during the 2008 Republican National Convention. “Community Organizer?” Giuliani repeatedly quipped, mocked and ridiculed the U.S. senator who would become America’s first Black president and go on to win a second term four years later. Giuliani’s disdain for then presidential candidate Barack Obama’s prior employment was almost palpable. Clearly, according to the mayor, serving his community without a grand title and for little pay did not make then Senator Obama qualified to become president of the United States.
Much has been made of “qualifications” in 2016. Former Gov. Mitt Romney, Obama and a host of notables on both sides of the aisle before Nov. 8 repeatedly stated that the first billionaire president-elect was not qualified to be president of the United States, whereas former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was lauded as the most “qualified candidate” for president ever by Obama at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Hands-down, Clinton had the most relevant experience of any candidate ever, having had the opportunity to serve in both the legislative and executive branch of the federal government as first lady, senator and secretary of state. However, the qualifications for president as per the U.S. Constitution are minimal—a candidate must be at least 35 years old, establish residency in the U.S. for 14 years and be a natural born citizen. Hence, the pernicious nature of the Birther Movement and our president-elect as a vocal and lead Birther. Calling into question Obama’s citizenship was arguably the only real challenge levied against the qualifications of a sitting U.S. president in our lifetime.
In the same vein, tapping the famed neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson as the first Black cabinet pick to be Housing and Urban Development secretary has less to do with the diminished priority of the agency under the new administration and more to do with having a Black man sit in a confirmation hearing broadcast before the world and rightly have his qualifications called into question. Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican former Gov.Mike Huckabee have already exchanged barbs regarding the nomination of Carson. Pelosi stated, “Dr. Carson is a disconcerting and disturbingly unqualified choice to lead a department as complex and consequential as Housing and Urban Development.” Huckabee, in turn, questioned whether Pelosi was “racist or just dumb.” The theatrics of the 2017 Senate Confirmation Hearings could not be scripted any better. The Democrats, who have historically championed affirmative action, will now be forced to publicly discredit and dismiss the most famous Black neurosurgeon as unqualified. The optics will be terrible.
To be clear, federal funding for affordable housing programs was already at risk as of Nov. 8. Carson’s service as secretary will have little to do with the erosion of opportunities for low and moderate income Americans to live decently in this country. Free market theory and anti-entitlement sentiment suggests that we are on our own. The moral compass of private developers, academic institutions and private citizens will truly be tested in the next eight years. Without government incentive, will these actors continue to seek greater inclusion and be on the right side of history? Time will tell.
However, for the same reasons why it was so important to label Obama “incompetent,” “unqualified” and the “worst president ever,” Carson’s lack of experience will be on full display in 2017. It was important to cast aspersion on our first Black president, despite his having pulled the nation out of the Great Recession and successfully rid the U.S. of Public Enemy No. 1 post 9/11, despite his having been Harvard Law Review’s first Black editor-in-chief, despite his having been a professor of constitutional law and despite his having served in both the state and federal legislatures. It was necessary to use subliminal messages, to Jedi Mind Trick us, to make us doubt him, his qualifications and his record, to make us think that Obama was just not that brilliant, that he “failed as a leader” because he was somehow “less than” each of his predecessors. Ironically, these are the same arguments that are frequently used in anti-affirmative action cases. Affirmative action as an “entitlement program” is certainly on the chopping block under the new Republican administration, given appointments to the Supreme Court in the next eight years.
Yes, Carson’s confirmation hearing promises to be a show for sure. Unlike Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s confirmation and Iraq hearings, where we took pride in Rice’s superior knowledge and breadth of relevant experience, even though many of us wished she were on the right side of history, we will feel nothing but shame during Carson’s HUD confirmation hearing. We will be certain of Carson’s inexperience and begin to doubt his brilliance as a medical professional. And so, with the nomination of a Black neurosurgeon who has no experience with the provision of housing and urban development, the billionaire real estate scion president-elect begins his case against affirmative action.
Tyreta Foster, Esq., is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University School of Law. She is a partner of a law firm based in Harlem.