On March 6, 2017, newly-sworn-in Housing and Urban Development secretary, Ben Carson, made a speech to his agency’s employees that confused enslaved Africans for immigrants seeking a better life in America. Word of this mix-up quickly gathered momentum in news outlets, on social media, and the late show circuit.
Regular readers of our blog know that we rarely get political, but in this case I wanted to contextualise Carson’s remarks and hopefully shed some light on why his assertion immediately received such strong criticism. As such, I am going to repeat his remarks here and highlight a few key areas that deserve correction and context.
“There were other immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who 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.” – Ben Carson, HUD Secretary, 6 March 2017
First up is Carson’s use of the term ‘immigrants’. Merriam-Webster defines an immigrant as ‘a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence’. We immediately have a problem, then, with considering enslaved Africans to be immigrants because an immigrant must be a person, and Africans ‘who came in the bottom of slave ships’ were property, not people. They did not have the rights or legal protections that, if we refer back to Merriam-Webster, are central to being considered a person in legal terms.
Second, but still on the subject of being an immigrant, immigrants typically move country for a reason. This may be to pursue a new job or the opportunity to build a better life with more land, a better climate, etc., or to be with family who have already immigrated. Immigrants have a choice. This is also a key difference between immigrants and refugees. Refugees arrive in a new country fleeing from danger. Immigrants may be looking for a better life, but they are moving of their own accord and can migrate further or return home. Refugees typically can not return home. Slaves have no legal choices regarding where they go, what they do, etc., because they are owned by others who dictate for them.*
*Not that enslaved individuals didn’t assert their power, make demands, flee their situation, etc. Enslaved persons were not legally considered to be people, but they were still human beings with agency, intelligence, personal beliefs, and relationships.
Next, we come to the phrase ‘who worked even longer, even harder, for less’. Slaves were unpaid. Had they been paid workers with contracts and/or the ability to legally leave their positions, they would not have been slaves. They would have been employees. So technically, yes, they were paid less than other ‘workers’ because they weren’t paid at all.
Some might say, ‘oh, they were paid in kind’, referring to shelter, clothing, food, and care offered to some enslaved individuals at some times in some places. Labouring on a plantation was not a choice for an enslaved person. It wasn’t freely entered into. Carson’s decision to describe enslaved Africans as having worked longer and harder for less implies that slavery and employment are the same thing.
The final part of states, ‘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.’ No. The African slaves who were brought to the Americas ‘in the bottom of slave ships’ were not dreaming of themselves and their descendants living out the American dream on American soil. This idea is demeaning to the generations who survived enslavement and to those who remained in Africa. It implies that transported Africans and/or their descendants were lucky to have been forcibly taken from Africa.
So where does this perception, this viewpoint comes from? It is grounded in the slavery-supporting idea of Western superiority. It was evident in the very origins of the transatlantic slave trade when the Portuguese received Papal support for slavery because it was an opportunity to spread Christianity and ‘save’ the African people through enslavement, forced transportation, and conversion.
12 million Africans were forcibly taken from Africa on the slave ships. Approximately 2 million didn’t survive the voyage to the New World. Just imagine what sort of decimation a culture, established social structures, and familial bonds go through when encountering loss on this scale. It’s horrific. Many immigrants certainly made their way to the Americas to pursue ‘the American dream’, but they weren’t slaves.