Jones: HUD is part of the legacy of slavery, which Ben Carson has failed to grasp

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Solomon Jones: HUD Secretary Ben Carson does not recognize the link between slavery and housing for today's poor minority citizens.

When I listened to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson compare immigration to slavery, I was transported back to the year 2000, when, as a young reporter, I stood on the sands of Busua Beach in Ghana.

I'd gone there to search out the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but as foam-capped waves crashed against nearby rocks and tears streamed down my cheeks, I discovered myself.

I found that while enslaved Africans left the continent through so-called doors of no return, they survived centuries of forced labor, rape, murder and torture. And despite the impossible odds of their survival, they returned triumphantly through me.

I don't know whether Carson, a brilliant neurosurgeon, has ever stood upon shores where enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas. If he had, I doubt he could say, "There were other immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who worked even longer, even harder, for less" than other immigrants.

If Carson understood the path of those who arrived here in slave ships, he would never say they "had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land."

Like any human beings who are kidnapped from their birthplace, the people who were forced into slave ships wanted to go home. Instead, they were forced to build a country for the benefit of others, to nourish its soil with the blood of their bodies and to fight for equality that eludes their children even now.

If Carson doesn't understand that history, he is not qualified to run HUD. Because the poverty he is supposed to address through housing policy is not an accident. It is the last remaining legacy of slavery.

The wealth gap that exists between American blacks and whites is not there because enslaved Africans were immigrants who worked harder and were paid less. It is there because enslaved Africans worked for centuries and were paid nothing. The wealth my ancestors created through their labor was taken by white slaveholders and passed down to their white children.

Even when slavery ended, the systemic theft of black wealth continued. The same 13th Amendment that freed slaves made prisoners subject to forced labor. That federal policy allowed freed slaves to be arrested on trumped-up charges and forced to work for free. Later, peonage developed, and crews of black prisoners were lent out to farmers to work their land.

Then, when the opportunity to create wealth through housing was made available to whites, blacks were routinely excluded.

Real estate agents would not sell homes to blacks in white communities. Banks would not fund developers who created integrated housing. To make matters worse, banks redlined black communities, refusing to grant mortgages and other loans to those who lived there.

State and local governments created zoning ordinances to maintain separate and unequal housing. And the federal government allowed blacks to be largely excluded from government programs such as the G.I. Bill, which allowed white soldiers returning from World War II to go to school, get job training and purchase housing.

Then, when black communities were sufficiently decimated, government-sponsored urban renewal forced blacks out of neighborhoods such as Philadelphia's Black Bottom, and pushed them into newly segregated areas.

Eventually, high-rise housing projects that further concentrated poverty in black city neighborhoods were planned, funded and built by HUD.

Now Carson, a black man, will run the agency whose policies created densely packed ghettoes for black people.

That might be a positive step if Carson understood the conditions that created impoverished areas in America's cities. But if Carson believes slavery and its legacy are tantamount to the experience of those who immigrated to America voluntarily, Carson's appointment to lead HUD is a step backward.

And so I mourn.

I mourn as I did on the day I stood on the shores of Ghana, knowing that the churning Atlantic Ocean was the last thing my ancestors saw as they were shuttled to waiting ships.

I mourn as I did after touring torture chambers such as Cape Coast, El Mina and Fort Metal Cross - the so-called slave castles where my ancestors were imprisoned before the treacherous journey to the Americas.

Their skin still raw from the branding iron, their souls still aching for loved ones lost, they did not board those ships with dreams of Carson's whitewashed America. They boarded those ships in shackles, while longing for Africa and home.

When Carson accepts that ugly truth, he will be ready to repair the housing policies that decimated America's cities.

If he doesn't accept that ugly truth, perhaps we all should mourn.

Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).

sj@solomonjones.com

@solomonjones1