During his first address as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the agency’s employees, Ben Carson managed to anger many outside of the room by insinuating enslaved Africans who were brought to America by force were actually immigrants in search of a better life.
“That’s what America is about,” Carson told the crowd. “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.”
Social media irrupted with many–including Samuel L. Jackson–lobbing angry comments at Carson for bungling historical facts. Once he was called out, Carson continued to double down on his comments on Armstrong Williams’ radio show later that evening, claiming people didn’t actually know what the word “immigrant” meant.
“I think people need to actually look up the word immigrant,” Carson told Williams. “Whether you’re voluntary or involuntary, if you come from the outside to the inside, you’re an immigrant. Whether you’re legal or illegal, you come from the outside to inside, you’re an immigrant. Slaves came here as involuntary immigrants but they still had the strength to hold on.”
During his appearance, a caller told Carson “you can’t be an immigrant if you’re brought over here in chains,” but the former neurosurgeon argued, “Yes you can, you can be an involuntary immigrant.”
Carson’s “involuntary immigrant” explanation didn’t stop the criticism and after it reached a fevered pitch he took to Facebook to clear up his problematic comments, admitting “the slave narrative and immigrant narrative are two entirely different experiences.”
I’m proud of the courage and perseverance of Black Americans and their incomprehensible struggle from slavery to freedom. I’m proud that our ancestors overcame the evil and repression that we know as slavery.
The slave narrative and immigrant narrative are two entirely different experiences. Slaves were ripped from their families and their homes and forced against their will after being sold into slavery by slave traders.
The Immigrants made the choice to come to America. They saw this country as a land of opportunity. In contrast, slaves were forced here against their will and lost all their opportunities. We continue to live with that legacy.
The two experiences should never be intertwined, nor forgotten, as we demand the necessary progress towards an America that’s inclusive and provides access to equal opportunity for all.
We should revel in the fact that although we got here through different routes, we have many things in common now that should unite us in our mission to have a land where there is liberty and justice for all.
While it’s clear Carson attempted to clean up his previous comments by laying out the differences between between immigration and enslavement, his language still needs to evolve. As I said on Twitter, constantly referring to enslaved Black people as “slaves” only further removes their humanity because they were not slaves, they were people who were enslaved. And after building this nation–and other nations around the world–it’s important we honor the humanity that many worked so hard to strip away.