Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson spent part of Juneteenth hiring a man whose past use of the n-word and dismissal of both hate crimes and abortion rights had forced him out of his previous job in President Donald Trump’s administration.
Eric Blankenstein resigned from a post in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in May, more than six months after a series of blog posts he wrote in the mid-2000s surfaced. Blankenstein had been part of a CFPB team specifically tasked with policing racial discrimination and other unlawful bias in consumer lending.
In one of the 15-year-old blog posts, he wrote that a white person who addresses racial slurs to black people shouldn’t automatically be deemed prejudiced.
“Fine…let’s say they called him n[—-]…would that make them racists, or just assholes looking for the most convenient way to get under his skin?” Blankenstein wrote in an item published as a dialogue with his co-blogger, who also repeatedly used and spelled out the hateful term in the exchange.
When that post and other entries from Blankenstein’s blog were published by the Washington Post in September, the then-CFPB official was defiant. He suggested that it was impossible to believe in good faith that a man who used such language and argued that “hate-crime hoaxes are about three times as prevalent as actual hate crimes” might be unfit to uphold public laws defining the line between legal debt-pricing practices and illegal racial discrimination.
Dismissing the items as “statements I wrote as a 25 year old,” Blankenstein told the Post his critics were just mad that someone might be “governing while conservative.”
That explicative combination — a retreat to supposed youthful folly wedded to an insistence that there was nothing wrong with the speech in question at all, in service of an argument that using the n-word is just part of being a conservative — is remarkably similar to the arguments conservative commentators made more recently in defense of Kyle Kashuv. But where Kashuv lost, Blankenstein appeared to win; he did not quit his CFPB post until May, despite career colleagues in his office almost immediately raising concerns about his ability and willingness to contribute to their anti-discrimination work both internally and externally.
Wednesday, Blankenstein joined Carson’s Office of General Counsel at HUD. He is reportedly assigned to a portfolio adjacent to the lending discrimination policy space where his presence had previously disturbed CFPB colleagues. Blankenstein’s legal work will specifically relate to Ginnie Mae, the HUD-controlled housing finance firm whose primary purpose is to promote homeownership among those not already well served by private lending market forces.
Given the nation’s staggering and persistent racial wealth gap, and decades-long history of federal, state, and local legislation intentionally restricting black families’ access to mortgages, Ginnie Mae’s employment of a racist — or, to hear Blankenstein tell it, a conservative 40-something who happened to be a racist at age 25 — rings precisely the same alarm bells his CFPB peers rang last fall.
It is important to understand the precise nature of those alarms. Patrice Ficklin, a career CFPB staffer in the same office Blankenstein served in, told colleagues that her worries about his dedication to anti-discrimination work predated the surfacing of his old writings.
“[W]hile he has been collegial, thoughtful and meticulous, I have had experiences that have raised concerns that are now quite alarming in light of the content of his blog posts,” Ficklin wrote in an email to CFPB staffers last fall. Those unspecified personal experiences with Blankenstein “call into question Eric’s ability and intent to carry out his…repeated yet unsubstantiated commitment to a continued strong fair lending program under governing legal precedent,” she wrote.
Blankenstein is not the first Trump administration staffer to use Carson’s HUD as a lifeboat after getting summarily bounced from a different post under public scrutiny. Trump campaign aide Taylor Weyeneth wound up on the HUD payroll after reporters noticed the 24-year-old was running the Office of National Drug Control Policy despite having no drug policy experience. Another loyal Trump hanger-on, event planner Lynne Patton, was put in charge of HUD’s public housing oversight work across New York and New Jersey despite having no experience in housing policy.
Whatever his views of race, racism, and their intrinsic link to conservative political thought, Blankenstein is at least not a blank-resume’d make-work figure. He is an actual lawyer.
The apparent politicization and micromanagement of Carson’s staff has run the opposite direction too, in at least one instance. Longtime Carson political aide Shermichael Singleton — then one of the only black Republican staffers to hold a political appointment in Trump’s administration — was physically escorted out of HUD headquarters by security a month after Inauguration Day. Singleton’s firing was apparently prompted by White House staffers’ discovery that he’d criticized Trump for refusing to grapple with America’s racist past.
There is a noteworthy through-line in the firing of Singleton, the retention and relocation of Blankenstein, and the way that Trump’s allies conducted themselves on Capitol Hill this week. Blankenstein’s new gig was first reported by Politico on Wednesday afternoon — the same day House Democrats held a lengthy hearing on how the U.S. government might provide reparations to black Americans in compensation for four centuries of enslavement and another 150-odd years of legal, economic, and physical violence.
The day prior to that Juneteenth hearing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) explicitly rejected the idea that America owes black Americans anything today, despite the reality that both lynchings and statutory discrimination persisted well into McConnell’s own lifetime. McConnell’s comments are by now representative of the main vein of conservative political argument around the nation’s racial history. Blankenstein has been rewarded politically despite having argued that race-hate speech does not equal racist prejudice. Singleton has been punished politically for arguing the opposite.
All the while, the crucial work of government entities like CFPB and Ginnie Mae continues — and while trained expert career staff perform the frontline tasks of such agencies, White House appointees set the topline direction for that work.