Mr. Carson turned his attention to slavery after describing photographs of poor immigrants displayed at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. These new arrivals worked long hours, six or seven days a week, with little pay, he said. And before them, there were slaves.
“That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity,’’ 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.”
The comparison was first reported by USA Today and quickly drew the ire of social media users who attacked the secretary, who is African-American, for what they saw as racially insensitive comments. On Twitter, the comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg recommended Mr. Carson watch the 1980s mini-series “Roots.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development was stunned by the uproar and spent part of the afternoon responding to the news media on Twitter. In a statement, it said critics were watching only a short clip from a 30-minute speech and were viewing the remarks in bad faith.
“This is the most cynical interpretation of the secretary’s remarks to an army of welcoming HUD employees,” the department said in a statement. “No one honestly believes he equates voluntary immigration with involuntary servitude!”
A spokesman for the department said Mr. Carson’s speech appeared to cause little upset among the employees who had gathered to hear him speak. Several hundred people attended the event and many lingered afterward to snap selfies with Mr. Carson, who was sworn in last Thursday.
On Monday night, following a radio interview in which he defended his remarks earlier in the day, Mr. Carson also did so on Twitter. “You can be an involuntary immigrant,” he said, adding that “slaves didn’t just give up and die, our ancestors made something of themselves.” He continued, “An immigrant is: ‘a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.’”
Mr. Carson’s speech was not the first time that a newly minted Trump official has caused offense with their handling of African-American history.
Mr. Trump himself has described “inner city” neighborhoods as a crime-ridden “hell” in need of a tough police response, a vision of urban life that has been received unfavorably by many minority leaders.
Last week, the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, caused an uproar by describing historically black colleges and universities — founded because black students were not allowed to attend segregated white schools — as “real pioneers” of school choice.
She later backtracked, saying in a statement that the history of black colleges and universities “was born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.”
Ben Carson just referred to slaves as 'immigrants'
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson referred to slaves as "immigrants" while speaking Monday to department employees.
"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. 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."
"There were numerous people who were brought over here on slaves ships and it is a horrible thing," Carson said. "I'm not saying that it wasn't a horrible thing, but what I am saying is that those people were strong. They were strong-willed. They didn't just give up and die like many of the other people who they tried to enslave. And one of the reasons that they didn't just give up and die is because they used the brain that God gave us and they figured that a time would come when there would be freedom. A time would come when their children could achieve."
HUD did not immediately respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.
Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who vied for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, was confirmed and sworn in as HUD secretary last week. He's never held public office before, nor is he versed in housing policy.
"Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a Presidency representing all Americans," Trump said in December when he announced Carson as his pick to head HUD.
Samuel L. Jackson On Ben Carson’s Slavery Comment: ‘Mothaf***a Please’
Ben Carson gave a speech on Monday that raised a lot of eyebrows, including Samuel L. Jackson’s.
In his debut as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Carson told agency employees about the virtues of the “can-do” American society and used “immigrants” who “came here in the bottom of slave ships” as the examples of that virtue.
“That’s what America is about,” Carson said. “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. 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.”