Ben Carson compared slaves to immigrants seeking a better life in his first official address today as Housing and Urban Development Secretary, setting off an uproar on social media.
In what appears to be an embarrassing pattern of mis-steps on race for the Trump Administration, Carson told a room packed with hundreds of federal workers that the Africans captured, sold and transported to America against their will had the same hopes and dreams as early immigrants.
"That's what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less," said Carson, speaking extemporaneously as he paced the room with a microphone.
"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."
His comments were broadcast live to all of HUD's regional field offices as well as to the public.
A senior HUD official who spoke on condition of anonymity said no one in the room interpreted Carson's comments as anything but a "heartfelt introduction to the HUD family".
"He was making a point about people who came to this country for a better life for their kids," the official said.
"Nobody in that room put two and two together and came to five. Only the most cynical interpretation would conflate voluntary immigration to this country with involuntary servitude."
Near the end of the town hall event, during a question and answer session, one HUD staffer took the microphone and thanked Carson for addressing the staff, noting that many in attendance had been worried about how the Trump Administration would approach HUD and its work. The staffer said that she had been reassured by Carson's comments as others clapped.
But the reaction on social media was swift and unforgiving.
Just last week, US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hailed historically black colleges and universities as "pioneers" of "school choice" after meeting with a group of college presidents.
She made no mention of the fact that the schools were forged at the height of racial segregation because black Americans were barred by laws in many states from attending white institutions.
Instead, DeVos said in a statement that HBCUs are "living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality".