Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson made three grave mistakes on Tuesday with his comments.
Comparing voluntary immigration with our country’s greatest sin – forced slavery – was without a doubt wrong. If he truly believes that there were “other immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who worked even longer, even harder, for less” we invite him to take a trip down to the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture to view the many diagrams of how slaves were packed into the bottom of ships to be brought over. We believe that people being kidnapped and enslaved against their will are fundamentally different from those people who chose to immigrate to the United States seeking a better life, and conflating the experiences of those two fundamentally different groups of people is factually incorrect and morally repugnant.
His idea that those who came over had a dream that “one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land” is far from the reality that we live in today. First, actually seeking prosperity and happiness was not possible for enslaved African people in the United States at that time. Typical life expectancy of enslaved people in the United States was approximately 22 years. Even the great-grandchildren of the people who were kidnapped and transported to the nineteenth century United States lived and died as slaves.
Mr. Carson should read over the CFED and Institute for Policy Studies’ report: The Ever-Growing Gap to see how this trend has continued into the present. Over the past thirty years alone, the average wealth of black families has grown 3x slower than that of white families. White families have a legacy of public policy and opportunity on their side – one that has allowed for them to pass down wealth in a cycle. Black families have not had the chance to even get on that same trajectory, let alone catch up. If this trend continues, it will take black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today. Without serious change, we are talking dreaming about prosperity for generations far beyond great-grandchildren.
And last, The United States is big enough to allow people to realize their dreams – but we are far from doing so. We live in an age when 40% of the population makes under $15 an hour. 53% of black workers earn less than $15 an hour, 48.5% of working women earn under $15 an hour, and our current minimum wage is keeping 26.3% of families at or near poverty. It is no coincidence that the countries with the lowest poverty rates – such as Iceland and Denmark – have some of the highest relative minimum wages in the world, or, as in the case of Denmark, have decided to grant a Universal Basic Income. Mr. Carson, we are far from the being the only country that has allowed its people to realize their dream.
It is especially alarming that Mr. Carson made these comments on his first day one as leader of HUD since the department plays such a fundamental role in issues that directly impact minority communities.