Many of us can recall a moment when a political leader made a statement or comparison that caused us to gaffe. In fact, truth be told many of us recall moments in our very own lives where 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 can be offensive to some. This is particularly true when the person who utters such a statement is a public figure. Expectations are higher. Rightfully so. And there will always be people who can’t be satisfied because it doesn’t fit into their preconceived view of that person, their family, their job, their origin. But one’s character is affirmed by how the person who finds themselves in such a controversy handles themselves in that tough situation. Are they defensive or in a denial? Or do they listen, process and clarify to reflect the intended meaning of their words?
President Obama made similar comments during a ceremony for newly naturalized U.S. citizens on Dec. 15, 2015. Obama stated, "those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily," Obama 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. Carson, 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 twenty-five years. His intent was to shine a light on the values and aspirations that we share. It was certainly not to offend anyone. As he notes in the above quote, the slavery experience and the immigrant experience could not be more different. His own life, its 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 yesterday’s remarks differently. But we should all look to Dr. Carson as a healing, unifying public figure as context.
In its entirety, Dr. Carson’s 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 and said, I don’t have a question, I just want to let you know that your remarks have given me comfort. There were hundreds of staff waiting in line after Dr. Carson’s remarks to get a chance to shake his hand or take a quick picture with him. Yet, all of this was lost because the media painted a narrative that Dr. Carson was intent on hurting people with his words. When asked by reporters of their thoughts, staff said they weren’t offended; one African-American male staffer reported hours later that he didn’t even know anything Dr. Carson said was a big deal until he saw it on the local news, which speaks volumes.
Dr. Carson is a servant leader, and in my 25 years of knowing him, I have found him to be a man of compassion, always putting others before himself. I have also known him as someone who would never do anything to intentionally hurt anyone. 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.