Popular motivational speaker and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson provoked a firestorm on Monday after he described slaves brought from Africa as “immigrants” who dreamed of success for their families in the United States.
Carson, who is African-American, made the stunning remarks during an address to employees at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Washington.
“That’s what America is about: a land of dreams and opportunity,” said Carson, a retired neurosurgeon said after describing photographs of poor immigrants displayed at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.
“There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less,” he said. “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.”
The comparison provoked an instantaneous backlash online and quickly drew the ire of social media users. Comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg suggested Carson watch the 1980s mini-series “Roots.”
“Ben Carson…please read or watch Roots, most immigrants come here VOLUNTARILY, cant really say the same about the slaves…they were stolen. “Immigrants???” tweeted the NAACP, the nation’s largest civil rights organisation aimed at ending racial discrimination.
The remarks were condemned as “tragic, shocking and unacceptable” by the US office of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, a social justice group named after the Jewish girl whose diary, written before she was killed in the Holocaust, became a globally respected account of discrimination and hope.
“No, Secretary Carson. Slaves didn’t immigrate to America,” the group’s executive director Steven Goldstein wrote. “This is as offensive a remark as it gets.”
A spokesperson for HUD department pushed back, saying on Twitter that the flurry of US media reports on Carson was “the most cynical interpretation” of his remarks.
“No one honestly believes he equates voluntary immigration with involuntary servitude,” the department added.
It was not the first such controversy for Carson, a former Trump rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and someone who routinely blasts political correctness.
He once said Joseph, the Biblical figure, built Egypt’s pyramids in order to store grain, and not as tombs for the pharaohs.
In 2013, he blasted the health care reforms of Trump’s presidential predecessor Barack Obama as “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.