Dr. Carson, Slavery and Immigration

In the last few days social media have exploded over comments from HUD Secretary Ben Carson regarding slaves being immigrants. I must admit, when a friend pointed it out I was a little incredulous. I couldn’t believe it either. I told my friend Dr. Carson probably misspoke; and that at the very least we should show some grace by cutting him some slack.

However, later I realized he had double down on his comments asserting his claims again on Armstrong Williams’ radio program. Now I know Armstrong, and I have a great deal of respect for both he and Dr. Carson. So, if they were both standing firm there must be something to it.

So, I started to investigate and did a google search to see if anyone every referred to the slave trade as immigration. I found an article by Ira Berlin, a distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland, and leading historian on the history of slavery in North America and the Atlantic World. The article is entitled African Migration to Colonial America. The author mentions that:

“African American life in the United States has been framed by migrations, forced and free. A forced migration from Africa—the transatlantic slave trade—carried black people to the Americas. A second forced migration—the internal slave trade—transported them from the Atlantic coast to the interior of the American South. A third migration—this time initiated largely, but not always, by black Americans—carried black people from the rural South to the urban North. At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, African American life is again being transformed by another migration, this time a global one, as peoples of African descent from all parts of the world enter the United States.”

The article was published under the heading “Immigration.” Interestingly, after reading this article it occurred to me that people are upset because they’re conflating slavery with migration. Let me explain. Slavery has nothing to do with the movement of people from one place to another. Slavery is forced labor, bondage and/or restricted freedom. On the other hand, migration is the movement of people, or animals from one place to another. Immigration describes one’s traveling to another country to live there. If you take all these terms together in considering the Transatlantic slave trade, you understand that Africans were captured and enslaved. Then they were forcibly migrated to the Americas. Once in the Americas they lived as immigrants who had been forcibly moved to the USA (a country, which was not their homeland).



To call slaves immigrants is not to soften the harshness and barbaric nature of the slave trade. It just means they were not born here. How they got here and how they were treat once they got here constitutes the crime. But it doesn’t negate that, by definition, slaves were immigrants—albeit forced immigrants.

President Obama also called those who were not born here immigrants. In a naturalization speech (see here) he gave July 4th, 2012 he said:

“With this ceremony today — and ceremonies like it across our country — we affirm another truth: Our American journey, our success, would simply not be possible without the generations of immigrants who have come to our shores from every corner of the globe.  We say it so often, we sometimes forget what it means — we are a nation of immigrants.  Unless you are one of the first Americans, a Native American, we are all descended from folks who came from someplace else — whether they arrived on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, whether they came through Ellis Island or crossed the Rio Grande.”

The former president included slaves in his speech about immigrants. So why is it that everyone is up in arms about Dr. Ben Carson? As I originally said to my friend who brought this to my attention, we need to stop being so hyper-sensitive when people say something we disagree with. Instead, stop and do your homework; find out if there is any truth in their statement before you go calling for their head on a platter. We could all use a little more grace and do a little more research. (See also The African-American Migration Story: The African Americans many rivers to cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr).

Note: After the writing of this piece Dr. Carson walked back his statement saying he misspoke. It’s unfortunate that we can’t have a real discussion about Black history without people going ballistic. Walking back truth is never a good idea. But as someone once said in a famous movie “[we] can’t handle the truth.”

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