Our new secretary of housing and urban development had a rough first day on the job, earning ridicule from the black community, civil rights advocates and everyday people with a reasonable grasp of U.S. history for comparing modern African-Americans’ ancestors to “immigrants.”
Carson’s verbal misstep came during his inaugural address as HUD secretary, broadcast to regional HUD offices and the general public via Facebook Live. At one point in his 40-minute speech, Carson talked about the will power and dreams of early American immigrants seen in a photo at Ellis Island in New York.
Then he uttered: “That’s what America is about. 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.”
While no one flipped a table or, according to The Washington Post, even noticed from inside of HUD, the rest of the world was outraged. Many interpreted Carson’s words as an attempt to rewrite history, which says slave traders forcibly placed Africans into slave ships and transported them in horrid conditions across the Atlantic Ocean to North American colonies.
— deray (@deray) March 6, 2017
— NAACP (@NAACP) 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 tried to clarify his remarks later on. He said on a Sirius XM radio show, “You can be an involuntary immigrant,” and, “An immigrant is ‘a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.’”
Striking a softer, almost-but-not-quite apologetic tone, he issued a longer statement on Facebook to show that he does understand the differences between immigrants arriving in the country to find work and Africans being brutalized and made to come here to work at no profit to their families.
“The Immigrants made the choice to come to America. They saw this country as a land of opportunity,” he wrote. “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.”
The U.S. Senate confirmed Carson, an iconic retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, as secretary of housing and urban development last week. He’s written many books about his journey from living in poverty to becoming a world-class doctor but stepped into the realm of mainstream politics only four years ago when he criticized President Obama, seated only feet away, during a National Prayer Breakfast.
Despite an unexpected, but failed presidential run, Carson was nominated by President Donald Trump for his new position in December after being considered for other roles in his Cabinet. The former Hopkins doctor, whose mother is said to have worked three jobs to keep them out of public housing, has no experience serving in public office, but has said he feels very strongly about the duties of his new agency.
Elected officials, including both of Maryland’s senators, have said they acknowledge his medical expertise, but are concerned about his lack of experience and his expressed distaste for many of the fair housing and federal assistance programs he has been tasked with administering. Carson backed off of some of that rhetoric during his confirmation hearing, though Sen. Ben Cardin said he’s “concerned that [Carson’s] initial comments were more reflective of his true beliefs.”
The retired doctor’s remarks yesterday fueled more speculation that Trump’s administration may not have an excellent grasp on black history. Education Secretary Betsy Devos, who has also never served in an elected office, last week compared the rise of historically black colleges and universities to school choice, rather than acknowledging them as a product of racial exclusion. President Trump in early February also led some to speculate that he may not have known famed Baltimorean and abolitionist Frederick Douglass is no longer alive.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Carson never lived in public housing.