Ben Carson ushered in his tenure as secretary of Housing and Urban Development by suggesting that Africans brought to the Americas during the Middle Passage as slaves were “immigrants” who imagined the US as a “land of dreams and opportunity”.
“That’s what America is about,” Carson said. “A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.” His remarks came in his first address to employees of the agency, which he was confirmed to run by the Senate last week despite a lack of any formal knowledge on housing or development policy.
Enslaved Africans were, of course, not immigrants, and were transported in the cramped, disease-infested holds of ships while shackled stationary as property of “new world” and European corporations. The enslaved had virtually no knowledge of where they were being taken, and less than 10% of the tens of millions of Africans transported wound up on the shores of the US, with a majority landing in South America and the Caribbean.
Carson earned instant and biting ridicule for his remarks, with many online poking fun at the former neurosurgeon.
WH - How can we get people to forget the #MuslimBan— Vinay A. Ramesh (@vinaytion) March 6, 2017
Ben Carson - I can give a press conference and call slaves immigrants
WH - Done.
Everyone at Ben Carson right now. pic.twitter.com/dmGQT516zb— Indigo Commentaries (@Indi_Comments) March 6, 2017
Ben Carson..please read or watch Roots, most immigrants come here VOLUNTARILY,cant't really say the same about the slaves..they were stolen— Whoopi Goldberg (@WhoopiGoldberg) March 6, 2017
Carson’s remarks were colored by historical revisionism from the start, with the secretary declaring that the department would be run in a spirit of fairness under his leadership.
“No favors for anybody, no extras for anybody, but complete fairness for everybody, because that is what the founders of this nation had in mind,” Carson said of the framers, who mostly excluded those who were not white, land-owning Protestant males from their particular vision of “fair”.
“People could do whatever they wanted as long as what you wanted to do didn’t interfere with me and what I wanted to do,” Carson said of the 18th century US, ignoring the explicit unfreedom that black and Native Americans experienced.
Carson later corrected his comments in a statement on Facebook, saying “the slave narrative and immigrant narrative are two entirely different experiences,” and should “never be intertwined.”
The speech is not the first time Carson has offered a misguided understanding of slavery during public remarks. In 2013 he told attendees at a conservative political convention that Barack Obama’s Affordable Care act was “really, I think, the worst thing to happen to the nation since slavery. And it is slavery, in a way”.