March 8, 2017

The Update Desk: Did He Really Just Say That?

In Monday's post, I expressed incredulity that HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson would refer to Africans who were brought to America against their will and sold into slavery as immigrants.

Surely, they were people who came to "a country to take up permanent residence" if you can actually call being bought and sold repeatedly a life of permanent residence, but perhaps that's splitting hairs.

Today, we have reports that former President Obama reportedly used similar language, with varying degrees of specificity, on multiple occasions. For example, speaking to recently naturalized citizens in December 2015, Obama noted:
It wasn't always easy for new immigrants. Certainly it wasn't easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves. There was discrimination and hardship and poverty. But, like you they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them. And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.
Here's what immediately preceded the remarks above:
Down through the decades, Irish Catholics feeling hunger, Italians fleeing poverty filled up our cities, rolled up their sleeves, built America. Chinese laborers jammed in steerage under the decks of steamships, making their way to California to build the Central Pacific Railroad that would transform the West and our Nation. Wave after wave of men, women, and children - from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, from Asia and Africa - poured into Ellis Island or Angel Island, their trunks bursting with their most cherished possessions - maybe a photograph of the family they left behind; a family Bible or a Torah or a Koran; a bag in one hand, maybe a child in the other - standing for hours in long lines. New York and cities across America were transformed into a sort of global fashion show. You had Dutch lace caps and the North African fezzes, stodgy tweed suits, colorful Caribbean dresses. And perhaps, like some of you, these new arrivals might have had some moments of doubt, wondering if they had made a mistake in leaving everything and everyone they knew behind. So life in America was not always easy.
This context may make soften the blow a little; reading this one could make the connection between the people in leading passage being the ones Obama was referring to in the section referencing slaves as 'in their own way, immigrants themselves."

Either way - with or without the context, I find it disturbing to use immigrant and slave glowingly in the same sentence. Had I been aware of the Obama comments, I would have had the same reaction as I did to Carson's remarks: What the hell are we doing?

The other times when Obama is said to have used similar language, he referenced a 'connectedness' and a sense  of  'we're in this together" because, as a nation of immigrants (other than the First Americans), we share the same dreams about America: people come here because they wanted a better life then they had wherever they came from.

I don't think that's the case with the slaves, do you?