Ben Carson is new at his job, in every sense. The former presidential candidate, who has no government experience whatsoever, should never have been considered for the position of Housing and Urban Development secretary, let alone confirmed by the Senate on March 2. Carson's own impoverished upbringing in Detroit is no real training for addressing the concerns of the millions who live in public housing. So it was pretty much expected that he would stumble on his first day at HUD. But he full-on face-planted.
The speech Carson delivered to HUD employees on Monday was already weird before he got to slavery. The famed neurosurgeon began by waxing rhapsodic about the brain: He claimed he could drill a hole in the head of an elderly person, implant electrodes to stimulate the hippocampus, and — stay with me here — that person would then be able to recite a book they read 60 years ago. That claim alone is lunacy, at least according to the experts, but it swiftly got worse. Carson used all that fantasy about the brain's boundless capacity as an allegory for American exceptionalism.
"That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity,” Carson said. “There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less." It wasn't the first time he'd made a bad comparison to slavery; in 2013, he said Obamacare was the "worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery." That was hyperbolic and intellectually dishonest. This is so incomprehensible, it barely qualifies as English. He posted a Facebook statement that came close to an apology, but also called slaves "involuntary immigrants" during an appearance on a radio show hosted by his own presidential campaign adviser, Armstrong Williams. Carson also told Williams that it should be noted how "strong-willed" slaves were and that "they didn't just give up and die."
I'll get past the obvious: Slavery was not immigration. It was a hostage crisis that lasted, in this country, for nearly 250 years. It was rape, starvation, mutilation, murder, whipping, lynching, and virtually every other terrible thing that a human being can do to another. Enslaved Africans journeyed to this nation (and others) wearing shackles and the scarred-over brands left by the hot iron of the white kidnappers who now claimed ownership over them. They were stacked beside and even on top of the other, often left to lie in their own excrement and vomit. Thousands of these abductees, understandably, died on these ships or hurled themselves overboard to drown. If they even made it to the Americas, they were separated from their loved ones, their customs, their language, and even their names. They didn't "work for less"; they worked for nothing.
Carson’s remarks were not just wrong in every way "wrong" can be defined. They were slavery denialism dressed up as patriotism. You see the same thing on any flagpole where the Confederate flag flies as a proclaimed symbol of "Southern heritage." Perhaps you can also find it at your alma mater. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a champion of charter schools, released a statement recently arguing that historically black colleges and universities — once the only choice African-Americans had for higher education — were "real pioneers when it comes to school choice." That kind of repackaging of America's history with racism, intentional or not, is essential to white supremacy. Bigotry is like any commodity in that it needs to be sold and marketed. What does that better than a good fantasy?
But when that rubbish is affirmed by another black person, it is a different thing altogether. Carson quite literally gave comfort to the enemy. The last thing racial revisionists want is for the American public to understand the true horror of slavery, for they may then decide that there is a debt that remains unpaid. They could also understand how slavery's roots have sprouted into today's economy, prisons, and schools, and continue to thrive. Heaven forbid that ever happens. People might actually stop voting Republican.
That's why men like Carson are important to a contemporary conservative movement driven, increasingly, by white nationalism. Carson provides not simply symbolic cover for his fellow Republicans to push racist policy such as Trump's discriminatory travel bans. By claiming that slaves were immigrants, he also positions that policy in a narrative of individualistic heroism. In those remarks, he added that enslaved Africans, too, "had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land." That isn't a dissimilar message from what we hear in Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise": "I am the dream and the hope of the slave." But tied to this new idea of enslaved immigration, which isn't a thing, Carson's uplifting end note doesn't just send a message to other black folks that "we started from the bottom, now we here." It's more akin to "I started from the bottom, now I'm here. Why aren't you?"
Carson's Horatio Alger complex dominates his politics and his public presentation. Rather than eschewing the myth of the magical Negro, Carson seems to embrace it. For our new HUD secretary, his success isn't just a rags-to-riches story unique to his own circumstances. It is a road map for black uplift that values hard work, but conveniently omits the good of public works and the damage done by systemic racism. And other than slavery, there have been few institutions in American history that have been more systemically racist than housing. In his new job, Carson has signaled that he may eliminate Barack Obama's 2015 rule requiring communities to identify and make plans to address racial and income segregation. Essentially, he now has the power to force those living in public housing to test out his theories about social advancement, all while further exacerbating white privilege. Carson's oddities may have amused us in the past, but he is no laughing matter now. He is dangerous.
One of the most famous quotes from Carson's celebrated 1990 autobiography Gifted Hands is from his mother: "If you don't succeed, you have only yourself to blame." Carson's book was often thrust into the hands of black children, myself included, by eager elders in the hopes that we would be inspired. But now it's obvious that we were tricked. Carson's worldview is a convenient fiction that ignores how the odds have been stacked against people of color by government and society alike since the days when our ancestors were brought here in chains. For the system of racial inequality to persist, the public has to think it doesn't exist and that those people of color who fail within it must have only themselves to blame. It's easy to see why many, including Carson, believe that. Understanding the reality of America would be too much for some. It would appear too cruel.