Newly appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson offered few policy specifics during his first address to employees on Monday, a meandering speech marked by a startling comparison between slaves brought to the U.S. and immigrants.
Carson's remarks on immigration recalled a Texas textbook referring to slaves as workers.
“There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships,” he said. “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.”
The comments drew swift and angry reaction.
The actor Jeffrey Wright said he wouldn’t trust Carson to operate on a crawfish head, while Samuel L. Jackson reprised a favorite, if profane, phrase from "Pulp Fiction" in a tweet.
The NAACP weighed in simply: “Immigrants???”
In a Facebook post on Monday night, Carson reversed his earlier comments, saying that slave and immigrant experiences were entirely different.
"Slaves were ripped from their families and their homes and forced against their will after being sold into slavery by slave traders," he said. "The Immigrants made the choice to come to America. They saw this country as a land of opportunity. In contrast, slaves were forced here against their will and lost all their opportunities. We continue to live with that legacy."
He added: "The two experiences should never be intertwined, nor forgotten."
The neurosurgeon-turned-presidential candidate's speech also emphasized fairness, discussed the spectacular power of the human brain and, in response to a question about how he would further civil rights, said that he would watch and listen to what people are saying.
Carson cautioned that Americans tend to resist things that are imposed on them. Then he recalled an anecdote about his mother.
“She only had a third-grade education but she was an extremely wise person,” he said. “For my brother and me, the rules of the house — she always had us sit down and make them up. Therefore we couldn't really complain about them. And it worked pretty good.”
Carson shared his philosophy on success — a mixture that includes talent, honesty and God, among other things — and said that all people, no matter their ethnicity or background, shared a singular and amazing attribute: the human brain.
“It remembers everything you've ever seen, everything you've ever heard,” he said. “I could take the oldest person here, make a little hole right here on the side of the head, and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus and stimulate and they would be able to recite back to you verbatim a book they read 60 years ago. It's all there. It doesn't go away."