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Monday, March 13, 2017

Ben Carson is right: Slaves were immigrants

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So the Internet went up in flames last week over Ben Carson's insertion of slaves into the American immigrant narrative in his first speech as Secretary of Housing and Human Development. Apparently, after speaking of the work ethic of immigrants in general, Carson said, "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."

As it turns out, President Obama made basically the same comparison, if in a somewhat more nuanced way. But, of course, Obama might be wrong as well. Indeed, I think that both Obama and (more blatantly) Carson are wrong. But not because they refer to slaves as "immigrants." Clearly slaves were among the many people who came to what is now the United States from some other part of the world. So why the outrage over Dr. Carson's claim?

In context, Carson seems to have been praising the work ethic of immigrants, and of course that is a grotesque context in which to mention slavery, as if slaves were simply an extreme example of people who were willing to undergo great hardship and work hard in order to make a better life for themselves and their families. But obscene as such a suggestion is, focusing on Carson's poor choice of wording misses the bigger point made (unintentionally) by his remark. 


People are reacting so strongly to Carson's use of the word "immigrants" because the term is not, for most Americans, a neutral description of "people who move from one place to another." It is a sacred word, a ritual evocation of one of the key pillars of the secular religion called American nationalism.

The orthodox American narrative holds that this country was built by people who came here seeking a better life--tough, independent, resourceful pioneers who "beat a thoroughfare for freedom" (across the bodies of native people, of course) and created a society that values initiative, self-sufficiency, and hard work. There are conservative and liberal versions of this narrative. The conservative version emphasizes the virtue of the "good" immigrants and judge both immigrants and native-born Americans when they fail to reach the standard. The liberal version emphasizes the generosity of American society in giving immigrants a chance, and expects contemporary native-born Americans to live up to that standard. The "slaves as immigrants" remarks of Carson and Obama, respectively, represent these two different versions of the immigration narrative.

But the narrative as a whole founders on the fact that slaves were immigrants. Both Carson and Obama try to weave slaves into the orthodox immigration narrative. Carson does it more clumsily, and Obama more subtly. But neither attempt works. Slaves did not come here looking for a better life. They were forced to come here by people seeking to exploit them. Yes, of course they sought a better life for themselves once they were here. Yes, many African-Americans came to believe in American ideals of liberty and democracy, and held white Americans accountable for the flagrant way in which they violated their own professed ideals. (Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" is the most obvious example, and Frederick Douglass' "What to a slave is the Fourth of July" speech is even more striking in the way it combines endorsement of American ideals with scathing condemnation of the way white Americans failed to live up to those ideals.) But they can't be shoehorned into a story about immigrants "seeking a better life for themselves" in a "land of opportunity. For African slaves, America was a land of horror and exile, not a land of opportunity. Any immigration narrative that doesn't acknowledge this is a lie.

The flip side of "slaves were immigrants" is "many immigrants were slaves."  If we take that sentence seriously, then the entire American narrative about immigration will have to be rewritten, or even discarded. Rewriting the immigration narrative to include slaves doesn't jam together two quite different things. Rather, it reveals what a pious fraud the orthodox narrative always was. After all, slaves are only the most obvious exception to that narrative.  Immigrants came to North America for all kinds of reasons. Some were seeking economic opportunity. Some were seeking religious freedom. Some were seeking simple survival--the Irish refugees fleeing the potato famine, for instance. Some were seeking a laboratory to explore radical political or religious ideas. Some were murderers or rapists or other criminals fleeing justice or seeking a new start in a country where their past was unknown. And yes, many of them came in chains, on slave ships, not seeking anything but hoping desperately, somehow, to survive.

A true narrative about American immigration must take all of these categories into account, as well as the who came thousands of years ago and whose prior claim was violently set aside by later waves of immigrants. The "orthodox" narrative is not just historically native--it is actively pernicious in the way it affects Americans' attitudes to immigrants today. Current waves of immigrants, such as Latin American "illegals" or Syrian or Somali refugees, are judged against an ideal standard and found wanting. "Real" immigrants are resourceful would-be entrepreneurs who seek a better life for themselves rather than desperate people forced to come here by war or famine in their homelands. "Real" immigrants are ideologically committed to American principles before they set foot here. "Real" immigrants assimilate. And so on. Over and over again I've seen people recite piously the narrative of American generosity to immigrants as an excuse for being less than generous to the immigrants actually under consideration. Simply repeating the "nation of immigrants" cliche, while true, is futile in countering this narrative, because it leaves untouched the assumption that the heirs of former immigrants have the right to stand in judgment on later immigrants, only urging them to do so generously. Since conservatives are convinced that they are already unbelievably generous, this appeal is in vain.

The fact that slaves were immigrants blows this assumption sky high.

Since slaves were immigrants, the heirs of the enslavers have no moral standing to judge later immigrants.

Since slaves were immigrants, appeals to the sacredness of immigration law are grotesquely hypocritical.

Since slaves were immigrants, torn from pagan or Muslim cultures, sold to Christian masters, and eventually tossed the Gospel as a pacifier, white Christian Americans have no business fretting about the supposed danger of Muslim immigration.

When we hear reports of families torn apart, of "illegals" being rounded up and shackled and penned in holding facilities, we have no right to say smugly, "well, that's what they get for breaking the law." We should rather hear the terrible echoes of what our ancestors once did to black "immigrants," and we should tremble and repent.

Recognizing the moral burden placed on us, as white residents of North America, by the misdeeds of white Americans in the past does not mean that we walk around oppressed with guilt. It does not mean that we deny the parts of the orthodox narrative that are true. There is much that is noble and inspiring in the story of immigrants coming to America. There is much that is beautiful and heroic in American history as a whole. By all means tell those stories and live in the light of those ideals. But don't construct a triumphalist narrative denying the horror and injustice that are also part of the story.  And don't approach contemporary issues as if that narrative gave you the moral high ground. We are much more likely to act justly if we start from a position of honesty and humility.

Dr. Carson's remarks were indeed obscene. Not because he said that slaves were immigrants, but because he refused to acknowledge how devastating that fact is to the narrative of immigration he was trying to promote.