President Trump’s new housing secretary has caused controversy after referring to slaves who were brought from Africa to America as “immigrants”.
Dr Ben Carson, who is the only black member of Mr Trump’s cabinet, was making his first speech to staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) when he made the remarks – described as “offensive” by civil rights campaigners.
He was praising the work ethic of immigrants who dreamed of success for their families in the US when he said: “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.”
Enslaved Africans did not voluntarily come to the US and were denied freedom for hundreds of years.
Although Dr Carson received a standing ovation from hundreds of HUD staff, a backlash quickly followed.
Rana Hogarth, a history professor and expert on American slavery, described Dr Carson’s comparison as “inappropriate and wildly inaccurate”, as immigration suggests “a desire of a person to make the journey”.
Rebecca Scott, a law and history professor at the University of Michigan, added that slavery in the US was a “dramatically distinct form of migration”.
She explained: “That people had aspirations for their children regardless of how they were brought to the United States was certainly true. Their capacity to see their aspirations realised was starkly limited by slavery.”
In a tweet which appears to have since been deleted, the Department of Housing and Urban Development wrote: “This is the most cynical interpretation of the Secretary’s remarks to an army of welcoming HUD employees.
“No one honestly believes he equates voluntary immigration with involuntary servitude!”
The furore will likely prove an unwelcome distraction for Dr Carson, who has just begun his first full week leading the department since he was confirmed by the Senate last week.
His department is responsible for providing housing assistance to people on low incomes through vouchers and public housing – and his role could see him play a prominent role in reviving poor neighbourhoods.
Dr Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who ran against Mr Trump as a Republican presidential candidate last year, himself grew up in a Detroit ghetto.
This is not the first time he has been criticised for making insensitive remarks.
In 2013, he described Obamacare – also known as the Affordable Care Act – as “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”.