A hypothetical narrative for your consideration: A man climbs through the window of a sleeping girl. She stirs awake and starts to scream, but he punches her with a closed fist. Brandishing a gun, he vows to kill her parents, asleep in the next room, if she makes another sound. She nods in tearful comprehension and he is upon her, tearing at her night clothes. Then he violently makes love to her.
It could be argued that there’s nothing wrong with the foregoing description. After all, the basic mechanics of love making and rape are the same: sexual intercourse. But if you understand why that argument would be specious and offensive, please explain it to Ben Carson. The new secretary of Housing and Urban Development just described slaves as “immigrants.”
This happened Monday in a speech before HUD staff. Carson waxed eloquent about America as a nation built by people from other places, then 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.” But the slaves were no more “immigrants” than rape is making love. Nor is it difficult to tell the difference.
Immigrants booked passage and came to these shores in steerage, enduring heat, stench and cramped conditions in hopes of better lives in America. Slaves were kidnapped and came to these shores shackled, lying cheek to cheek in their own body waste.
Immigrants disembarked at Ellis Island where they endured questioning and health inspections before being allowed to enter the country. Slaves disembarked at places like Annapolis, Charleston and Savannah, where they were branded like cattle with hot irons, had their bodies probed by foreign fingers, then were sold at auction, sometimes on credit.
Immigrants stood staring up at the towers of New York City and were daunted and inspired by the universe of possibilities they represented. Slaves stood staring down at fields of cotton or tobacco, at an overseer’s whip, at a thin mattress of corn shucks in a tiny cabin where winter’s icy breath came slicing through the cracks, and tried to understand that this was life now, and that death would be their only freedom. Immigrants relocated. Slaves were relocated. They had no more say in the matter than a chair moved from one side of a room to the other.
After being excoriated for his apparent ignorance of this, Carson issued a statement on Facebook that said that the immigrant and slave experiences were different and “should never be intertwined.” Which doesn’t explain why he did exactly that.
It’s hard not to see this as part of an ongoing campaign by the political right to arrogate or neuter entirely the language of politics and social grievance. Consider how, in the last 25 years, “liberal” and “feminist” became curse words and “racism” was redefined as “speaking about race.” Now it’s becoming sadly common to hear enslaved Africans described as “workers,” “settlers” and, yes, “immigrants.”
Words, you must understand, have weight and effect. So this campaign is neither incidental nor accidental. No, like Holocaust denial, it is an attempt to minimize and trivialize a crucible of agony, to rob it of pathos, to render it unworthy of reverence. It’s heartbreaking to have to explain to anyone why this is wrong. It’s pathetic to have to explain it to a 65-year-old African-American man.