When critics of Ben Carson's appointment as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development pointed to the retired neurosurgeon's lack of governmental or urban policy experience, supporters reminded that he was raised in the overrun downtown of Detroit. Hovering over the debate was Carson's race, and Trump's courting the black vote by referring to "inner cities" and "urban wastelands."
Against that backdrop, but also independent of any such context, Ben Carson's first speech as HUD Secretary contained a doozy.
As Dr. Carson spoke to the department's employees with a simulcast going to HUD field offices and the general public, he said: "That's what America is about. 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."
The video comes via the Washington Post, which reports that while Carson's speech received a rousing ovation from HUD employees in the room -- including those who were black -- the words landed much differently as they reverberated across social media. The statements offended and were meme-ified, quickly lampooned as the latest example of the administration's ongoing difficulty in resonating with minorities.
And while Dr. Carson's misstep was unintentional, it's worth deconstructing why so many were troubled by what they heard.
Immigrants are free-minded people who leave one land for another for their own reasons. "Immigrants" is not a term used for people whose movement is unchosen. Even those who choose their destination, but only after being forced from their homelands, are not called "immigrants." They are called "refugees," a word this administration is certainly aware of.
Slaves are not immigrants. Slaves don't choose to leave. Slaves don't choose to arrive. Slaves don't choose.
We as a people are free, but we are obligated to choose our words carefully, lest our misrepresentations marginalize and pave over the real pain we forced upon a people.
There is no doubt that Dr. Carson knows this. But he shares with us an obligation to be impeccable with our words, especially when words are what we have to preserve the truth, especially at a time when the truth is getting increasingly difficult to see through the gaslight.