WASHINGTON — Ben Carson compared slaves to immigrants seeking a better life in his first official address Monday as Housing and Urban Development secretary, setting off an uproar on social media.
In what appears to be an embarrassing pattern of missteps on race for the Trump administration, Carson told a room packed with hundreds of federal workers that the Africans captured, sold and transported to America against their will had the same hopes and dreams as early immigrants.
"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," said Carson, speaking extemporaneously as he paced the room with a microphone. "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."
His comments were broadcast live to all of HUD's regional field offices as well as to the public.
A senior HUD official who spoke on condition of anonymity said no one in the room interpreted Carson's comments as anything but a "heartfelt introduction to the HUD family."
"He was making a point about people who came to this country for a better life for their kids," the official said. "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."
Near the end of the town hall event, during a question-and-answer session, one HUD staff member took the microphone and thanked Carson for addressing them, noting that many in attendance had been worried about how the Trump administration would approach HUD and its work. The staff member said that she had been reassured by Carson's comments as others clapped.
But the reaction on social media was swift and unforgiving.
On Twitter, users poked fun of the retired neurosurgeon's gaffe, questioning whether he needed a brain transplant. They posted picture of slave shackles on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, sarcastically asking whether Carson would refer to the instruments of bondage as "luggage." Others said, using Carson logic, internment camps should be called "summer retreats" and concentration camps "diet facilities."
The backlash caught off guard several HUD employees who attended the event, including career professionals at the department who said his speech was well received internally. Carson's team walked away from the event thinking it had gone smoothly.
"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," said one staff member speaking on background.
Another career staff member, who is black, said he did not notice that Carson had referred to slaves as "immigrants" until he read the media coverage hours later.
"That was lost on most people in the room. He was making the point that people didn't just come through Ellis Island," the staff member said. "If anything, I thought someone may have taken issue with the fact that he was pointing out it was rougher for black people."
Just last week, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hailed historically black colleges and universities as "pioneers" of "school choice" after meeting with a group of college presidents. She made no mention that the schools were forged at the height of racial segregation because black Americans were barred by laws in many states from attending white institutions.
Instead, DeVos said in a statement that HBCUs are "living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.