Ben Carson's first official speech as head of Housing and Urban Development is generating widespread controversy.
In the March 6 speech, Carson compared slaves to immigrants seeking a better life, reports The Washington Post. His comments were heard by the hundreds of federal workers present in the audience, as well as others in HUD's regional field offices where the speech was broadcast live.
Carson said slaves from Africa had the same hopes and dreams as European immigrants. "That's what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity," he 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."
Unlike Randy Newman's satirical anti-slavery song "Sail Away," Carson's comments were apparently not intended to be ironic.
A senior HUD official, speaking anonymously, said Carson’s comments were intended to be a "heartfelt introduction to the HUD family. The source added: "He was making a point about people who came to this country for a better life for their kids. Nobody in that room put two and two together and came to five. Only the most cynical interpretation would conflate voluntary immigration to this country with involuntary servitude."
But many on social media did the same arithmetic and came to a different conclusion, reports the Daily Mail.
On Twitter, actor Samuel L. Jackson summed up the attitude of those who were offended by Carson's remarks: "OK!! Ben Carson....I can't! Immigrants? In the bottom of SLAVE SHIPS??!! MUTHAF***A PLEASE!!!"
Basketball star James Johnson posted an image of a black man with whipping scars on his back, accompanied by the caption, "Does this look like an immigrant?"
Representatives of HUD were reportedly surprised by the hostile reaction. As one anonymous staffer said, “HUD has many employees who are African American and at the end of his remarks they stood up and applauded for the secretary. Many went to take pictures of him."
Carson himself replied to the controversy later that night. On Twitter, he accused the media of blowing his comments out of proportion, but attempted to clarify his remarks by noting that a person "can be an involuntary immigrant," then offered a definition of "immigrant" that encompasses those who arrived against their will.
Later, on Facebook, he contradicted the optimistic tone of his HUD speech, presenting a much more realistic interpretation of historical events:
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.