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Ben Carson v Frederick Douglass: when slaves are immigrants

March 7, 2017

As the 45th President’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson gave his first public address in which he said slaves were immigrants.

At the 18-minute mark he says:

There were other immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who 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.

Later on twitter he makes as clear as possible his intent and his definition, repeating what he told the public through his subsequent conversation with a caller on the Armstrong Williams Show:

Carson insists:

You can be an involuntary immigrant.

And there is history to his interpretation and his definition. There is Carson’s own history of making and repeating his interpretation of slaves as immigrants. And there is the history of this interpretation against what Frederick Douglass said in a speech much earlier, in which Douglass reminds listeners that slaves were not considered by their owners to be human beings much less immigrant human beings.

In 1997, Dr. Ben Carson gave his first address at the National Prayer Breakfast at the invitation of President Bill Clinton. There he introduced the notion that African slaves and European immigrants were the same. He repeated portions of this speech in one of his books published a couple of years later:

Then to help his new bid to run for president of the United States, he writes a new book in which he repeats his interpretation. This time he gets very personal, defending his self-identification with Europe “as an African American” by identifying European immigrants, again, with African slaves:

To Carson, the equation of European immigrants and African slaves is a very personal thing indeed. When the first African American president invited him back to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, Dr. Carson took the opportunity to slight President Obama and his policies that would somehow make African Americans not in the family with European Americans. Dr. Carson there gives a parable, insinuating that the Democratic president uses government to favor African Americans over European Americans unfairly:

Here’s a parable: A family falls on hard times. Dad loses his job or is demoted to part time work. He has 5 children. He comes to the 5 children, he says we’re going to have to reduce your allowance. Well, they’re not happy about it but – he says, except for John and Susan. They’re, they’re special. They get to keep their allowance. In fact, we’ll give them more. How do you think that’s going to go down? Not too well. Same thing happens. Enough said.

But, Dr. Carson would attempt to remind, African Americans are equal with European Americans when all are given equal education (and not when government treats them unequally); African slaves, after all, were also hard working immigrants just like hard working European immigrants. Again Carson makes this personal:

Two hundred years ago when slavery was going on it was illegal to educate a slave, particularly to teach them to read. Why do you think that was? Because when you educate a man, you liberate a man. And there I was as a youngster placing myself in the same situation that a horrible institution did because I wasn’t taking advantage of the education.

Carson is saying that African slaves who took advantage of their opportunities were just like European immigrants who took advantage of their opportunities. To fail to live and to thrive is simply merely a failure to seize the hard work of hard work and the hard work of self education. Now perhaps Carson was thinking of Frederick Douglass, an African slave, who was taught to read by a European American owner of him and other African slaves.

What Carson fails to acknowledge, however, is that Africans were not considered by Europeans to be human beings. Europeans considered Africans whom they enslaved to be property, to be beasts, like cattle.

Douglass lived through this ontological segregation, this white European view that his black African body was the body not of another human being but of a mere animal.

And so Frederick Douglass gave a different sort of speech than the sort that Ben Carson has given. On October 22, 1883, Douglass said this:

In the dark days of slavery, this Court, on all occasions, gave the greatest importance to intention as a guide to interpretation. The object and intention of the law, it was said, must prevail. Everything in favor of slavery and against the Negro was settled by this object and intention. The Constitution was construed according to its intention. We were over and over again referred to what the framers meant, and plain language was sacrificed that the so affirmed intention of these framers might be positively asserted. When we said in behalf of the Negro that the Constitution of the United States was intended to establish justice and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, we were told that the words said so but that that was obviously not its intention; that it was intended to apply only to white people, and that the intention must govern.

When we came to that clause of the Constitution which declares that the immigration or importation of such persons as any of the States may see fit to admit shall not be prohibited, and the friends of liberty declared that that provision of the Constitution did not describe the slave-trade, they were told [by white European American owners of slaves] that while its language applied not to slaves, but to persons, still the object and intention of that clause of the Constitution was plainly to protect the slave-trade, and that that intention was the law. When we came to that clause of the Constitution which declares that “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due,” we [black African Americans] insisted that it [that is, the notion of an immigrant] neither described nor applied to slaves; that it applied only to persons owing service and labor; that slaves did not and could not owe service and labor; that this clause of the Constitution said nothing of slaves or the masters of slaves; that it was silent as to Slave States or free States; that it was simply a provision to enforce a contract; to discharge an obligation between two persons capable of making a contract, and not to force any man into slavery, for the slave [not being a human being] could not owe service or make a contract.

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