GREENVILLE, South Carolina -- Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson largely avoided the issue of race during a town hall appearance Friday at Bob Jones University (BJU), a school that became a flashpoint in the 2000 GOP presidential primary over its longstanding ban on interracial dating. But based on interviews with nearly a dozen BJU students, about half of whom are people of color, Carson was wise to focus on other areas.
"I'm happy that the main focus at this convention was not just race," said Sylenthia Arnold, a 20-year-old African-American student at BJU. "It is important, but that should not be the whole situation."
Speaking to a roomful of more than 5,000 people at the evangelical university here, Carson weighed in on a wide variety of topics -- including ISIS, immigration, Medicare, Israel, the Iran deal, tax reform, education, Guantanamo, Supreme Court justices and even the NCAA championship. But at no point did the retired neurosurgeon and the only African-American candidate in the race address what one reporter referred to during a press conference earlier that day as "the elephant in the room" -- that is, Carson's appearance alongside Tim Scott, the first African-American U.S. senator from South Carolina, at an institution that for decades shaped policy along racial lines.
Carson told the reporter in question that his "message doesn't change from one audience to the next."
"I'm not a politician, so I don't go around with my finger in the air saying, 'Will this hurt me with this group or that,'" he said. Asked whether the town hall could damage his standing in the African-American community, Carson replied: "If it hurts me, it hurts. I don't think it will."
GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy -- best known as the chairman of the U.S. House Select Committee on Benghazi -- made one mention of race toward the end of the town hall, asking Carson how Republicans can do a better job of appealing to diverse audiences. But again, Carson skirted the issue.
"The message that I'm talking about in terms of empowerment is going to continue to infiltrate the black community, the Latino community, all of the communities over the course of time," Carson said. "And the progressive movement will try to do everything they can to stop that message from getting out."
Carson's stated desire to "de-emphasize race" stands in stark contrast to remarks from Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, both of whom have gone out of their way to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement and this week expressed solidarity with students protesting racism on college campuses. It's an approach that may hurt Carson with black voters, who make up 28% of South Carolina's population. But as far as BJU students are concerned, it's also a smart strategy.
"I’ve followed him since my freshman year before he entered politics … so I think I’ve had opportunities to see him speak on race," said 22-year-old Zolian Zoong Lwe. "For me personally, I don’t think that I needed any more."
Eighteen-year-old Maddie Motta expressed a similar sentiment.
"I really don't think race matters," she said. "In the end, it's about where your soul's going to go, and souls have no color. I think Ben Carson believes that same thing."
BJU gained notoriety in the 2000 election after then-presidential candidate George W. Bush held an event there without criticizing the school's policies. In addition to banning interracial dating, BJU also labeled Catholicism a “satanic counterfeit."
Shortly after Bush's appearance, which garnered attacks from his GOP rivals, BJU dropped its interracial dating ban. Eight years later, the school's president apologized for failing to "provide a clear Christian counterpoint" to the "segregationist ethos of American culture."
Today, as some college administrators find themselves in the spotlight for failing to address a pervasive, subtle brand of racism, many BJU students insist such problems don't exist at their school.
"This campus is welcoming no matter what race you are," said 21-year-old Lauren Wildhagan. "Coming from someone who isn't all white, I definitely feel welcomed here. I don't feel any division."
Twenty-five-year-old Freddie Whatley, who grew up in Peru, agreed.
"Everybody's nice to me," he said. "Even though there's a lot of white people here, they don't segregate at all."
BJU has no Black Student League, no Asian Student Union or any other group that exists on college campuses to foster community among minority students. But Arnold spoke of an informal, student-organized "brother and sister dinner," primarily geared toward African-Americans at BJU. She said that while enrollment numbers having generally been on the decline recently, she's seeing more and more black students every year.
"The love on the campus in amazing," said Arnold. "It is different than it has been in the past. I would say that Bob Jones really uplifts diversity. There's so much diversity."
Her friend, 20-year-old Samantha Parsons, who is white, agreed. Still, she wished Carson would've talked more about social justice -- not from an African-American standpoint, but from a Christian one.
"As a Christian, I think that when it boils down to everything, it's not just a social justice problem; it's a sin problem," Parsons said. "People are just not loving each other in the right way."