In bizarre first speech to HUD, Carson hints at skepticism on civil rights protections

He also described victims of the Atlantic slave trade as “immigrants.”

Trump’s then-pick for Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Ben Carson, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. CREDIT: AP/Zach Gibson
Trump’s then-pick for Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Ben Carson, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. CREDIT: AP/Zach Gibson

In his first public appearance after being confirmed as secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Ben Carson gave a rambling speech to department staff on Monday that did not provide any insight into which policies he would pursue. Instead, Carson’s speech featured personal stories, an inaccurate description of slavery, and vague platitudes about the American entrepreneurial spirit.

But the major theme of his speech was resistance to big government — a potential indicator of how he plans to run the main federal agency in charge of housing affordability.

The more bizarre part of his speech were his surgery-related jokes and reference to slavery. Carson joked that he preferred to operate on young people rather than “old geezers” because he liked to get a “return on investment.”

On the same day the Trump administration unveiled a new Muslim ban executive order, Carson also waxed poetic about Ellis Island and how immigrants “worked not for themselves, but for their sons and daughters and granddaughters, so that they may have opportunities in this land.” He also inaccurately called slaves “immigrants” who “worked even longer, even harder for less.”

Throughout his speech, Carson referred to ensuring “fairness” for all Americans; but on closer scrutiny, he seemed to be pushing against the notion that systemic barriers are keeping people poor and that civil rights protections are necessary. The personal anecdotes that Carson related tended to focus on how he achieved success through sheer hard work and creative thinking — a lesson that he applied to anyone struggling economically.

“We have a duty to enhance fairness for everyone, and one of things you will see under my leadership is that there will be very big emphasis on fairness for everybody,” he said. “We do no favors for anybody. There are no extras for anybody.”

He went on to say:

But complete fairness, because that is what the founders of this nation had in mind … That does not mean we will not be vigilant when it comes to the laws of land, but it means we recognize when we treat people fairly, the need to regulate their lives and try to force people to do things becomes much smaller, because people don’t feel they are being unjustly treated and they aren’t looking for a way out of the situation.

It is common for conservatives to refer to “extras” as assistance for people in poverty, but Carson has used the word “extras” before when referring to LGBTQ protections.

“It’s one of the things that I don’t particularly like about the movement,” Carson said to Fusion’s Jorge Ramos in 2015. “I think everybody has equal rights, but I’m not sure that anybody should have extra rights — extra rights when it comes to redefining everything for everybody else and imposing your view on everybody else.”

Carson has made a number of homophobic remarks, and once described Obama’s HUD rule to enforce the Fair Housing Act as a “failed socialist experiment.”

After Carson’s speech, Avery Jackson, a HUD investigator who enforces the Civil Rights Act of 1968, said, “I was happy to hear you say we will be vigilant in enforcing the law… I’d like to hear more about your plans for the division of fair housing and equal opportunity overall, and generally how you plan to further civil rights at HUD.”

Carson said he would be watching “to see what people are doing, and more importantly listening to what people have to say.”

He continued: “When you have divergent perspectives, if you can get those people to sit down and talk to each other they will be able to come up with extremely good solutions.” He added that people should “give first pass to people actually involved as opposed to imposing from above.” Carson said Americans are independent and will “resist you out of general principle.”

Carson then gave the example of his mother letting him and his brother make rules for their house, and said the house ran smoothly as a result. It’s unclear if Carson is saying guidance on fair housing that protects LGBTQ people needs to be rescinded when he talks about “extras” and “imposing from above,” or if he simply wanted another opportunity to share a childhood tale.