On 6 March 2017, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was the target of disdain for a statement interpreted by critics as likening the abduction and forced transport of African slaves to America with immigrants arriving on the shores of the U.S.: The controversial comment was made during Carson’s first address to employees since being confirmed as the Trump administration’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):
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.
That portion of the speech was preceded by a passage clearly meant to be inspirational, in which Carson spoke of immigrants who landed at Ellis Island and the dreams and determination of those who left their native lands to take a chance on better lives in the U.S.:
And go to Ellis Island one of these days if you haven’t been there and go through that museum on Ellis Island. And look at the pictures of all those people who are hanging up there. From every part of the world, many of them carrying all their earthly belongings in their two hands, not knowing what this country held for them. Look at the determination in their eyes.
In other portions of his speech (posted below), Carson talked in personal terms about his career as a neurosurgeon and asked department employees to take a pledge to be nice to everyone they met for one week. But it was the section on slavery that garnered the most attention (and criticism) on social media:
— AnneFrankCenter(US) (@AnneFrankCenter) March 6, 2017
Speaking on Sirius XM radio with political commentator Armstrong Williams, Carson later explained and defended his remark, saying:
“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.”
(For what it’s worth, “immigrant” is typically defined as “a person who migrates to another country,” with the word “migrate” implying a voluntary action. Standard English usage does not classify the forcible abduction and involuntary transportation over national boundaries of human beings, lacking any choice or intent to live in their new location, as a form of “migration.”)
Carson’s full speech can be viewed here, with his comments on immigration and slavery starting at the 18-minute mark: