When I listened to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson compare immigration to slavery, I was transported back to the year 2000, when, as a young reporter, I stood on the sands of Busua Beach in Ghana.
I’d gone there to search out the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but as foam-capped waves crashed against nearby rocks and tears streamed down my cheeks, I discovered myself.
I found that while enslaved Africans left the continent through so-called doors of no return, they survived centuries of forced labor, rape, murder and torture. And despite the impossible odds of their survival, they returned triumphantly through me.
I don’t know whether Carson, a brilliant neurosurgeon, has ever stood upon those shores. If he had, I doubt he could say, “There were other immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who worked even longer, even harder, for less” than other immigrants.
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The people who were forced into slave ships wanted to go home. Instead, they were forced to build a country for the benefit of others, to nourish its soil with the blood of their bodies and to fight for equality that eludes their children even now.
If Carson doesn’t understand that history, he is not qualified to run HUD. Because the poverty he is supposed to address through housing policy is not an accident. It is the last remaining legacy of slavery.
The wealth gap that exists between American blacks and whites is not there because enslaved Africans were immigrants who worked harder and were paid less. It is there because enslaved Africans worked for centuries and were paid nothing.
Even when slavery ended, the systemic theft of black wealth continued. Federal policy allowed freed slaves to be arrested on trumped-up charges and forced to work for free. Later, crews of black prisoners were lent out to farmers to work their land.
Then, real estate agents would not sell homes to blacks in white communities. Banks would not fund developers who created integrated housing and redlined black communities, refusing to grant mortgages and other loans to those who lived there.
State and local governments created zoning ordinances to maintain separate and unequal housing. And the federal government allowed blacks to be largely excluded from government programs. Then, when black communities were sufficiently decimated, government-sponsored urban renewal forced blacks out of neighborhoods and pushed them into newly segregated areas.
Eventually, high-rise housing projects that further concentrated poverty in black city neighborhoods were planned, funded and built by HUD.
Now Carson, a black man, will run the agency whose policies created densely packed ghettoes for black people. But if Carson believes slavery and its legacy are tantamount to the experience of those who immigrated to America voluntarily, Carson’s appointment to lead HUD is a step backward.
And so I mourn.
I mourn as I did on the day I stood on the shores of Ghana, where my ancestors were shuttled to waiting ships. They did not board those ships with dreams of Carson’s whitewashed America. They boarded those ships in shackles, while longing for Africa and home.
When Carson accepts that ugly truth, he will be ready to repair the housing policies that decimated America’s cities.
If he doesn’t accept that ugly truth, perhaps we all should mourn.