WARNING: Tweets featured in this piece contain strong language.
During his first speech before a crowd of employees, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Dr. Ben Carson, made an indelicate reference, calling African salves "immigrants."
Here's the quote:
Ben Carson at HUD: “There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less.” pic.twitter.com/VfH9YCbleM— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) March 6, 2017
The pertinent portion being:
"That’s what America is about--a land of dreams and opportunity. There were 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 was quick to slam Carson for referring to slaves as immigrants. Few were as outraged as actor Samuel L. Jackson:
OK!! Ben Carson....I can't! Immigrants ? In the bottom of SLAVE SHIPS??!! MUTHAFUKKA PLEASE!!!#dickheadedtom— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) March 6, 2017
Ben Carson is a Yale and University of Michigan educated neurosurgeon. His accomplishments are astounding. The Academy of Achievement documents Carson's successes:
At age 32, he became [Johns Hopkins] hospital’s Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, a position he would hold for the next 29 years...
In 1987, Dr. Carson made medical history with an operation to separate a pair of Siamese twins. The Binder twins were born joined at the back of the head. Operations to separate twins joined in this way had always failed, resulting in the death of one or both of the infants. Carson agreed to undertake the operation. A 70-member surgical team, led by Dr. Carson, worked for 22 hours. At the end, the twins were successfully separated and can now survive independently.
...other surgical innovations have included the first intra-uterine procedure to relieve pressure on the brain of a hydrocephalic fetal twin, and a hemispherectomy, in which an infant suffering from uncontrollable seizures has half of its brain removed. This stops the seizures, and the remaining half of the brain actually compensates for the missing hemisphere."
Despite his incredible education, and razor sharp intellect, Dr. Carson isn't the most eloquent man. Referring to slaves as "immigrants" isn't his first verbal blunder, and it likely won't be his last. However, one must read Carson's comments in context, and in this case, listen to them in order to examine the way in which they were delivered.
The speech was approximately twenty minutes long, and as of this publication, no full transcript exists. That said, the following is a broader view of Carson's remarks (emphasis added):
"Every one of the children born in our nation is a treasure, and it's someone for us to develop. And if we develop their potential, they become part of the engine and not part of the load. And every human being--regardless of their ethnicities, their background--they have a brain. The human brain. There is nothing in this universe that even begins to compare with the human brain, and what it is capable of. Billions and billions of neurons; hundreds of billions of interconnections. It remembers everything you've ever seen, everything you've ever heard.
I could take the oldest person here, make a little hole right here on the side of the head, [laughter from audience] and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus, and stimulate, and they would recite back to you verbatim a book they read 60 years ago. It's all there; it doesn't go away. You just have to learn how to recall--but that's what your brain is capable [of.] [It] can process more than two million bits of information per second...
So we need to concentrate a little less on what we can't do, and a little more on what we can do. After all, this is America. This used to be known as the 'can-do' society. Not the 'what can you do for me' society--but the 'can do' society. And there is a lot that we can do if we are simply willing to reach outside of ourselves and recognize that each person, all of our fellow man, all of our fellow Americans, we are one. It's called the United States of America. Think about that the next time you want to be mean to somebody--because there's no reason to do it.
And go to Ellis Island one of these days if you haven't been there. Go to the 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. People who work not five days a week, but six or seven days a week; not eight hours a day, but 10, 12, 16 hours a day. No such thing as a minimum wage. They work not for themselves, but for their sons and their daughters, and their grandsons and their granddaughters--that they might have an opportunity in this land. That's what America is about: a land of dreams and opportunity.
There were 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.
And do you know, of all the nations in this world, this one, the United States of America, is the only one big enough and great enough to allow all of those people to realize their dream. And this is our opportunity to enhance that dream."
Taken in context, what Ben Carson said may have been inelegant, but it wasn't untrue. Slaves were indeed sold into captivity, and transported to the United States. They weren't traditional immigrants--and it's doubtful Carson thinks that--but they were, in the most technical sense, immigrants.
In all likelihood, slaves did hope for the future of their children, and their children's children. Eventually, those dreams were realized and ratified in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. They were fought for during Jim Crow, and advanced during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Those dreams continue to progress and evolve even today.
The point Carson was making was that every human being, regardless of their race, creed, religion, national origin, or genetic makeup, has the right to life, and the opportunity to live a life of importance.
Samuel L. Jackson can call Ben Carson an "Uncle Tom" all he wants, and others can slam the doctor for his remarks regarding African slaves, but his point shouldn't be lost in the fog of an inarticulate moment, for it is an important one.
We are a nation that values human life at all stages, and in all forms, and we understand that in the United States, everyone should have the opportunity to achieve their goals. To excoriate Carson--not for his message, but for his inelegant word choices--is to engage in the most shallow form of thinking.