Tony Norman: Dr. Carson’s dreamy vision of America


U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon with no experience in elected office and little understanding of how government works, shouldn’t be running a federal agency overseeing a $32.6 billion annual budget — and he knows it.

Still, after a bitter Republican primary in which Donald Trump — now president of the United States — routinely referred to him as “Sleepy Ben Carson” and once compared him to a pedophile because of his “pathological temper,” he’s accepted an appointment to the Trump administration.

But Dr. Ben Carson isn’t our new surgeon general. No, Dr. Carson has been tapped to run HUD because he once “lived in public housing.”

While this should be a farcical and unlikely appointment even by Trump administration standards, it makes a perverse kind of sense strategically. After all, Mr. Trump has promised an infusion of $54 billion to defense in 2018, so all domestic programs are on the chopping block.

When the knives come out at the White House later this year to cut billions from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program, Section 8 Housing, rental assistance, vouchers for homeless veterans and the dozens of other programs and subsidies that disproportionately help the elderly and the poor, it will be easier if HUD’s director knows little to nothing about the bureaucracy he runs. Advocating for any agency is impossible if you don’t wholeheartedly believe in its mission.

Dr. Carson’s address to HUD employees earlier this week was a variation of the Horatio Alger up-by-your-boots-strap narrative he often uses to inspire conservative audiences. “That’s what America is about,” he said after waxing eloquently about Ellis Island and the European immigrant experience. “A land of dreams and opportunity,” he said with eyes closed and hands squeezing an invisible hope mid-air.

What Dr. Carson said next reminded us that his grasp of history — remember his notion about Egyptian pyramids being grain storage silos built by Joseph the Patriarch? — has always been shaky.

“There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less,” he said blurring the difference between voluntary and involuntary labor and conveniently omitting the fact that slaves weren’t paid “less” — they weren’t paid at all. For centuries they were considered chattel with human faces.

“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,” he said. It was the flip side of the same moral idiocy that had once moved him to condemn Obamacare as “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”

I don’t doubt for a second that Dr. Carson understands that those who came to America in the belly of slave ships were probably more concerned about freedom for themselves than wistful about whether their descendants would eventually inherit their piece of the American dream.

So why does he gloss over one of the biggest tragedies of American history by tacking it on to a treacly, overwrought paean to immigration? Why all of this nostalgia for Ellis Island and not one word of sympathy for refugees and immigrants trying to make their way to America today? And why does slavery only rate one despicable and ahistorical reference given the time he devoted to Ellis Island?

If there is one thing Dr. Carson despises more than liberalism is making white folks feel defensive about any aspect of American history. He sanitizes slavery and can’t even bring himself to mention this nation’s long and inglorious history of using immigration laws as a mode of social control.

It could be that Dr. Carson simply isn’t aware of the fact that throughout most of American history, our immigration laws favored one kind of immigrant above all others — white European Protestants from western and northern Europe. There were times when Catholics and Jews, Irish and “swarthy” southern Europeans were persona non grata in white Protestant America.

It took the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 to allow unfettered immigration from Asia and Africa to begin significantly changing the complexion of immigrants. Ellis Island is a small part of a much bigger and sometimes shameful story.

Dr. Carson isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt for knowing any of this because he belongs to an administration that holds history and science in obvious contempt. In Trump World, Frederick Douglass is still alive, Martin Luther King Jr. was a right-wing Republican and HBCUs were the vanguard of “school choice” after slavery ended and Jim Crow crushed black dreams of social equality.

In this upside down world where Dr. Carson has made a peculiar peace, Obamacare is “as bad as slavery” and a slave is little more than an immigrant without benefits. It is a world where American exceptionalism can cover a multitude of sins — including America’s original sin.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.



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