The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Slaves weren’t immigrants. They were property.

Why Ben Carson's ahistorical speech matters.

In remarks to his new staff, HUD Secretary Ben Carson referred to slaves as 'immigrants' and said they came to the U.S. in 'the bottom of slaves ships' for better opportunities. (Video: Reuters)

Were enslaved Africans “immigrants” to the United States?

Dr. Ben Carson, the new secretary of housing and urban development, said so in his first speech to the agency this week. Referring to the entry of European immigrants at Ellis Island, Carson said, “That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity.” He then added: “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.”

Carson’s impulse to homogenize our diverse origins lumps everyone together, without making important distinctions about the different pathways that dictated people’s arrivals. The conditions under which individuals and groups came here on their own accord, or were brought here against their will, have had monumental consequences for our life chances and the evolution of our rights as citizens.

Trump says he wants to fix cities. Ben Carson will make them worse.

Slaves were chattel. Slavery was a violent system of conquest and domination. Africans were kidnapped in the interior of the continent, marched to the coastline and packed in vessels like inanimate cargo. Some never left the ships alive because of inhospitable conditions on board. The “Middle Passage,” as it was called, was a deeply alienating journey into hell. These were one-way voyages with no chance of return.

About 12 million captives were taken to markets in the new settler colonies in North and South America and the Caribbean islands to be sold to the highest bidders, to toil on farms and plantations, in factories and private homes. They dreamed about freedom and returning home to escape the harsh labor regimes they encountered on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Enslaved people did not work “for less.” Their labor was stolen to enrich their masters. They passed on their legal status in perpetuity to children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and untold generations beyond. They had unknowingly embarked upon centuries of bondage, one of the longest nightmares in human history.

Carson’s comments generated a firestorm of criticism, which led him to parse his original statements over the course of the day. On a radio program, he initially defended himself by saying, “You can be an involuntary immigrant.” He adopted a generic definition of the term immigrant: “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” But, by the evening, he struck a different tone on Facebook: “The slave narrative and immigrant narrative are two entirely different experiences.” He conceded: “The two experiences should never be intertwined, nor forgotten.”

It was precisely that intertwining of these experiences that made his speech disturbing. Retrofitting a generic definition of the term “immigrant” to slavery strips both of their historical meaning. Immigrants are people who move in search of refuge and resettlement of their own volition. During the period of slavery in the United States, newcomers from Europe, Asia and elsewhere were called immigrants. Enslaved Africans were not. Our nation was built upon multiple patterns of migration that were propelled by variant motivations, including flight from religious persecution and the desire to exploit others for economic greed.

The U.S. has 35,000 museums. Why is only one about slavery?

But we need to reckon with this full history to grasp the complex forces that have made us who we are as a diverse nation. Some of us are natives of the continent. Indigenous peoples occupied the land for millennia, before the arrival of colonizers and new settlers who expropriated their land. Some were here before national borders were expunged and reclaimed by what is now the United States. And for those of us who migrated from across the seas, most came voluntarily. Africans did not, until the late 20th century.

Today, the descendants of the enslaved call ourselves African Americans, not Ghanaian, or Guinean or Sierra Leonean Americans because of this ancestral rupture and exile. We cannot specify what we do not know — unless we are more recent, true immigrants from Africa.

We used to count black Americans as 3/5 of a person. Instead of reparations, give them 5/3 of a vote.

By referring to slaves as immigrants, Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, is practicing historical revisionism with a blunt instrument. This was not the first time that he has taken liberties with the history of slavery. He called Obamacare “slavery in a way.” He argued that sanctioning reproductive freedom was like supporting slavery; that women who received abortions were like slave owners. These are odd contortions of history. Slavery was not really enslavement, but the exercise of a constitutional right and the establishment of federally sponsored health care are.

Carson’s speech harks back to a long-standing tradition of rebranding and sanitizing the horrific trade in human flesh. In the 1890s, former Confederates tried to rewrite history to extricate the role that slavery had played in the Civil War and to minimize its effect on Southern society, economy and polity.

These are not innocent gaffes. They do harm by misrepresenting our history to serve political objectives. They are useful to those who wish to exonerate the country of its racist past and its continuing influences. The excision of the country’s “original sin” from historical narratives renders subsequent patterns of racial discrimination incomprehensible. It is not enough to “not forget” the horrors of the history of slavery, however; how we remember their complex legacies is also crucial to the honest reckoning of our past. Our nation’s institutions and culture cannot evolve to live up to their full potential based on false narratives.