Armstrong Williams op-ed: Like Carson, Obama made the same 'immigrant' comparison

Many of us can recall a moment when a political leader made a statement or comparison that caused us to grimace. In fact, there are moments in our very own lives when we have made a comment that we would later regret; it's part of the human experience and none of us are perfect.

However, words do matter and there are times when a poorly turned phrase, especially by a public figure, can be offensive to some. Expectations are higher, rightfully so. But one's character is affirmed by how the person handles themselves in that controversy. Are they defensive or in a denial? Or do they listen, process and clarify to reflect the intended meaning of their words?

Dr. Ben Carson, the new secretary of Housing and Urban Development, learned this lesson Monday when, after describing poor immigrants displayed at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, he told HUD staff: "There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. 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."


The outrage was immediate, but President Obama made similar comments during a ceremony for newly naturalized U.S. citizens on Dec. 15, 2015. Obama referred to "those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily," and said they were "immigrants themselves" in "their own way" who had faith they could create a better life for themselves. Yet, there was no backlash or calls for an apology.

However, Dr. Cason, being a man of integrity, clarified his remarks: "The slave narrative and immigrant narrative are two entirely different experiences. Slaves were ripped from their families and their homes and forced against their will after being sold into slavery by slave traders. 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 of their opportunities."

I have known Dr. Carson for 25 years. His intent with his original comments was to shine a light on the values and aspirations that we share. It was certainly not to offend anyone. As he noted later, the slavery experience and the immigrant experience could not be more different. His own life, it's challenges and obstacles and apparent limits have reflected the reality of growing up in inner-city poverty, the ancestor of slaves.

Dr. Carson's instinct is not to ignore the scars of the historical American black experience, but rather to find ways to unite all Americans because that is the best way forward. True, if given the opportunity, he would likely have phrased Monday's remarks differently. But we should all look to Dr. Carson as a healing, unifying public figure and take his words in context.

In their entirety, Dr. Carson told me, his remarks were well received by the career staff at HUD. He received a standing ovation and multiple rounds of applause. One woman even stood up, Dr. Carson told me, and said that his remarks have gave her comfort.

He added that there were hundreds of staff waiting in line after the remarks to get a chance to shake his hand or take a quick picture with him. Yet, all of this was lost by the media reports. Based on his impression of the event, Dr. Carson said the staff wasn't offended and one African-American male staffer told the secretary hours later that he didn't even know anything Dr. Carson said was controversial until he saw it on the local news, which speaks volumes.

Dr. Carson is a servant leader, a man of compassion, always putting others before himself. We can all get caught up in the moment and say things off script, but what matters is that we take the time to listen to those who may have been offended by our remarks and provide clarity, which is exactly what Dr. Carson has done.

The department that Dr. Carson now leads faces major challenges and opportunities. He is uniquely positioned to bring together various federal departments to comprehensively address the needs of America's most challenged families and communities. He can break down the artificial silos that have no regard of their interdependence. Leveraging his international reputation as a healthcare expert, Dr. Carson can lead efforts to use housing to improve health outcomes - reducing chronic illness such as asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

He can create the incentives for a more public-private partnership that will provide better, stronger, healthier conditions for public housing residents. And he will push to use data and technology to give low-income residents more choice, more services, more support and more hope. These are the true issues that deserve our attention.

Dr. Carson's heart is in the right place and, as his longtime friend, I feel confident in his ability to be one of the best secretaries HUD has ever seen.

Armstrong Williams served as an advisor and spokesman for Dr. Ben Carson's presidential campaign. He is Manager and Sole Owner of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the year. Listen to Mr. Williams on Sirius XM126 Urban View nightly 6:00-8:00pm EST. Follow him on Twitter @arightside. 

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.