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Why it matters that Ben Carson is struggling to understand our history

Comment about slaves as immigrants is troubling coming from the head of HUD, an important federal agency for African-Americans

“The humiliation suffered by those in bondage is real, it’s raw. No one is talking about it honestly.” Those are the words of Anne, a woman in the “sewing circle,” in the season premiere of WGN’s Underground. Set in antebellum Georgia, people (including a white female abolitionist) knew then the realities of slavery. In 2017, a man thrust into the national political spotlight after a storied career as a neurosurgeon, still doesn’t.

On the surface, Ben Carson’s statements Monday about immigrants were ahistorical and deleterious. Yet, if you consider his “involuntary immigrant” statement in the context of his new role as the 17th U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), we should be very worried.

To quote a pop culture parallel rooted in more modern times: Ben Carson is in the sunken place.

If he can even fix his face to intone that the legacy of slavery in this country is remotely comparable to the immigrant experience, then we have to assume that he has a fundamental misunderstanding of history. Which, again, is entirely possible. That ignorance, when running an operation like HUD, could be catastrophically destructive to the lives of many black folks. The line is not hard to draw.

The modern framework for policing methods in this nation was borne out of the system created to control runaway slaves. As a result of the economic disenfranchisement and flat-out racism that kept black folks from living where they wanted — including redlining — guess where many people ended up? You guessed it, government housing.

Which is ultimately where these off-the-wall comparisons become harmful. If he’s willing to just blow by history and act like the reason that so many black folks, proportionally, are in the position they’re in is because they’re lazy, how will this affect any potential policy he’s responsible for? This is a far different matter from him being completely out of touch by making reference to a “Popeye’s organization” in a discussion about gun crime.

We’ve already seen this administration’s lack of transparency as it relates to the operational ability of much of our government. Wednesday, ProPublica released the names of more than 400 officials President Donald Trump has installed, many of whom are former lobbyists and congressional staffers whose purpose and authority are unclear. Yet, for the one most glaring position that purports to operate with the interest of black people in mind, Trump has installed someone who is actively trying to downplay this country’s original sin.

It’s particularly troubling considering that just last month, these two were gallivanting around the National Museum of African American History and Culture, claiming to be learning so much about history. Guess they just missed the whole bottom floor, which explicitly demonstrates how we were stolen from other nations, then our work was stolen from us to create the alleged greatness we currently purport to bask in. Even still, people like Carson are around, successful as ever.

“I said I don’t know if anybody has ever said this to you, but most African-Americans are doing pretty good,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) told reporters after a meeting with Trump on Wednesday. “And when we hear those words about carnage and we’re living depressed situations, I told him that it was very hurtful to people.”

That is true, comparatively. But if all the credit we’re ever given for continuing to exist, never mind thrive, in a system set up to harm us is: Well, it’s not as bad as before, that’s a massive step backward. HUD is in charge of far too many things that affect the African-American experience to let a former brain surgeon be at the forefront of dismantling communities while telling us that slave ships might as well have been Carnival cruises. Oversight of this department will be as important as any during the Trump administration.

“Everything that we do, every policy; no favorites for anybody, no extra for anybody, but complete fairness for everybody,” Carson also said Monday. “Because that is what the founders of this nation had in mind, and if you read the Constitution, it becomes very clear that that was the goal.”

It was never fair to begin with. It still isn’t.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.