It’s easy to drag Ben Carson. He makes it so very easy, fun even. Any rational, minimally educated adult could proffer a bullet-proof challenge to his claim that kidnapped Africans in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were in fact “immigrants.”
In Carson’s unsurprising but still disappointing first address to his Housing and Urban Development staff, he made just that claim.
“That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity,” Carson said. “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.”
Obviously, anyone who was kidnapped, beaten, raped, tortured, and stripped of culture in the bowels of slave ships is not strictly classified as an immigrant with high hopes for the next generation. Not to mention the fact that being forced into uncompensated servitude does not equate to working longer and harder for “less.” Working for free is slavery, not minimum wage or some Bizzaro World volunteerism.
There is no agency involved with enslavement. If the enslaved people on those horrific Trans-Atlantic routes had dreams, they were likely nightmares.
Carson was duly dragged on Twitter for his comments.
Yes. A dream of going tf back home. https://t.co/4ws6RkeJbA
— jelani cobb (@jelani9) March 6, 2017
OK!! Ben Carson….I can’t! Immigrants ? In the bottom of SLAVE SHIPS??!! MUTHAFUKKA PLEASE!!!#dickheadedtom
— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) March 6, 2017
“Now you’re in the Sunken Place” pic.twitter.com/e29hs8d60g
— Jordan Peele (@JordanPeele) March 7, 2017
Jordan Peele’s allusion to the kidnapped and virtually soul-less black people in his hit film Get Out is chuckle-worthy (and could explain why Carson often closes his eyes when he speaks), but if that scenario were to apply to Carson, that initial tea cup stirring must have happened years ago at a black Republican retreat.
After the raking over the digital coals, Carson took to a radio show by Armstrong Williams (a fellow black Republican) to defend himself and talk about “involuntary immigrants.”
“I think people need to actually look up the word immigrant. 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.”
Carson then took a move out of President Donald Trump’s playbook to deflect from substance and focus on audience feedback:
Everyone in that auditorium was with me. They knew exactly what I was saying. It’s only those people who are always trying to stir up controversy. Did they talk about the good things? Or the prolonged standing ovation? All the people standing in line to get pictures, the people who asked very good questions and got answers for them? The lady who stood up and said some of us were concerned but we’re not concerned about you anymore – no, they don’t cover that. They say, ‘ah, he said that slaves were immigrants and that’s a terrible thing to say and he’s out of contact with reality and he’s crazy.’ You know it’s really kind of sad what the media has degenerated into.
It’s sad that the media reports on and analyzes actual verbatim statements? No. What’s sad is that such statements are even uttered outside of satirical comedy sketch. And that is precisely where the public and the media need to take heed.
It’s fine to have a moment of levity and find humor in the absurdity of today’s political theatrics, but let it be just a moment. The larger picture is anything but funny. Ben Carson used to be an esteemed black man from Detroit with a best-selling, inspirational memoir and an impressive background as a ground-breaking neurosurgeon. People clamored for his insight and motivational tales. Today, as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he is just one more wholly unqualified person in Trump’s cabinet.
The only twist is that Carson is black.
Taking people like Carson for a joke is a mistake. Two years ago, a Trump presidency was laughable. Having a thin-skinned reality show bully as president of the free world seemed far-fetched, yet here we are. Words matter. Perception matters. “Alternative facts” must be beaten back with actual facts at every turn.
To have a person, a black person no less, reduce the atrocity of slavery to an immigration process is appalling, scary and unacceptable. This type of rhetoric is part of the reason that “the blacks” have not hopped on Trump’s train en masse. Also, accepting revisionist history like that is how societies end up repeating moral atrocities.
We must laugh and fact-check at the same time. Carson has since hopped on Facebook to back-track from his initial statements even further, noting that “The slave narrative and immigrant narrative are two entirely different experiences.”
The fact that Carson publicly repositioned himself to a reasonable stance is good but does not erase his initial commentary and could be a glimpse into how he will blunder in his new role, for which he has no relevant experience.
Moving forward, someone should gift Carson textbooks on history and urban policy and take his picture with the flash on.