— CNN (@CNN) March 7, 2017
Yesterday, Dr. Ben Carson, the newly appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) called African slaves immigrants. In the video above, you can hear him waxing on poetically about how those immigrants who crossed the Atlantic in the bottom of slave ships came here and worked really hard because they had a dream that their children might one day be able to experience the prosperity of this land. Two things. One, why do people always have to evoke Dr. King in their nonsense? Two, the only good sounding thing about what he said was literally how he sounded saying it.
Here’s the thing, immigration requires some semblance of choice and whether they were captured by Europeans or sold into slavery as prisoners of war by an African tribe, the African slaves who were brought to the New World through the Transatlantic Slave Trade, had no say, no choice in the matter.
What makes Sec. Dr. Carson’s comments so interesting is that they engage the sunken place (thank you Jordan Peele for giving us the perfect phrase to describe Black folks who cape for white people from here on out) on multiple levels.
His slaves as immigrants argument is nothing new. America has been trying to create the narrative that slavery wasn’t what it was since the founding of the country because the USA cannot be the land of the opportunity and equality it purports to be and yet have as deep a stain of slavery on its national conscious. The American experiment rests on erasing the evils of slavery and essentializing the humanity of Black people so that the 450 years of harm done to us become no problem. If slaves were immigrants or well fed and taken care of or stupid and primitive, then what Europeans and later Americans subjected those individuals to becomes “okay.” It becomes allowable because they were just doing the work of helping this disadvantaged population reap “the prosperity of the land.”
And while this narrative has existed throughout American history, it is especially poignant as we live through the first days of the Trump administration after experiencing an election that openly conjured fear, hate, and bigotry. Carson and others like him are only able to see immigrants humanity in the context of the United States obsession with meritocracy – the idea that everything one earns or doesn’t earn is based upon their own merit and work ethic. This narrative erases the humanity of not only immigrants, but most every American. It refuses to allow for systemic analysis and prohibits one from seeing the value of coming to America in human terms – if you of course believe there is value in immigrating here in the first place.
However, for all his postulating that America is this land of opportunity, Carson sure is going right along with Trump’s attempts to limit who has access to the “prosperity of the land.” His comments also show a deep ignorance of the Black experience and ways in which slavery, Jim Crow, and other traumas experienced by Black people over time and in the present affected Black history, affect Black todays, and will affect Black futures.
Though white supremacy and hegemony do not need marginalized groups to buy into their theories to predicate and propagate, it works to their advantage when those disadvantaged by their theories, pedagogies, and polices play along. White supremacy, neo-liberalism, capitalism, meritocracy, and hegemony require the pacification of those they harm because if we are pacified then we pose no threat. Meritocracy wins when one harmed by its ideology views the world through its gaze instead of calling bullshit on the ways it essentializes and erases not only their lived experience, but the lived experiences of others. Ben Carson upheld all that is wrong with the narratives about America, slavery, and immigration through his comments. He let hegemony win.
If you’ve seen Get Out, then you know that Ben is in the sunken place. A piece of me wonders if existing there makes life easier for someone like Ben – if it helps him reconcile with himself and how he turned on his people. It makes me nervous for what he will do as Secretary of HUD, an area of government that he as a surgeon surely knows nothing about. It demonstrates how powerful and pervasive the desire for access to the privileges that come with whiteness are.
Either way, I hope he gets out for both his sake and ours. I’m sure the ancestors can work something out in terms of forgiveness. Any volunteers to flash him?
P.S. Slaves were not immigrants. Immigrants have value outside of and without capitalism. Just wanted to make that explicitly clear in case you missed it.