FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — On his first visit to the town where a police shooting last year sparked riots, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson asserted Friday that America should "de-emphasize race" as an issue and accused President Barack Obama of taking the nation backward on race by talking about it too much.
Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and the only African-American in the Republican Party's 2016 field, became the first White House hopeful in either party to set foot in Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where a white police officer shot to death an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown.
An emotional Carson said the tour evoked memories of his own childhood in inner-city Detroit, where he saw firsthand the death and violence bred by poverty.
Yet he offered a clear message when asked what prompted his visit to Ferguson.
"We need to de-emphasize race. And we need to emphasize respect," Carson told reporters after the private tour with the mayor and a discussion with community leaders.
Speaking afterward to The Associated Press, he suggested the "Black Lives Matter" rallying cry that emerged after Brown's death should be changed to exclude the word "black."
"I would prefer it be taken out," Carson said. "I obviously prefer that we focus on everybody. At the same time, I recognize that they're trying to say that they feel that they've been treated unfairly — in many cases they have — I'm not going to take that away from them."
Carson has surged in recent polls by seizing on public frustration with the political establishment. He has never held political office. And he was little-known in politics before he criticized Obama's health care overhaul during the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast.
His willingness to take on Obama, the nation's first African-American president, has helped create a national following of grassroots activists.
He offers a unique biography in Republican politics, having said he remembers seeing bodies on Detroit's streets and thinking he wouldn't live past age 25.
Carson said the federal government should play a limited role in the race debate, which has intensified in recent months following the high-profile deaths of several young black men in cities across the country at the hands of white police officers.
"I think we've actually regressed with this administration and its emphasis on race, because it emphasizes race to indicate that things are not progressing well. And that just isn't true," Carson said.
He said the country has regressed because "we're talking about it a lot more -- more people complaining that they're being treated unfairly. I don't think we need to be emphasizing what's unjust. I think we need to be emphasizing what opportunities there are."
He continued: "A lot of people perceive everything through racial eyes. But my point is, we don't have to do that. What we have to do instead is begin to see people as people."