Ben Carson touched off a firestorm this week when he referred to slaves as immigrants. (Barak Obama has done the same several times.) The uproar has been that equating slavery and immigration minimizes the horrors of slavery. I have engaged in a number of social media discussions on this topic. At the crux of the matter is volition. Are people brought to a place against their will immigrants? Merriam Webster Dictionary:
Immigrant - “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.”
Volition is not part of the definition. As any demographer will tell you, populations grow (or decline) via three factors: births, deaths, and migration. When looking at a particular locale, people who come to that locale are immigrants. People who go from that locale to another are emigrants. Births and immigration grow the population. Deaths and emigration shrink it. It is a closed system. Volition is not part of the equation.
I am in agreement with concerns about minimizing slavery and I worry that statements by Carson and Obama risk doing that. As Jemar Tisby writes, a generous reading of Carson’s characterization is that “African slaves endured unimaginable hardship to carve out a life for themselves and their descendants.” I think that was indeed the intent but it is challenging. Framing slaves as rough equivalents of people who bought a ticket on a boat to come to America in search of a better life minimizes slavery. Both were immigrants but with very very different stories. The desire to present African-Americans as other than simply victims while embracing the horrors of slavery is a tough needle to thread in the space of a few words as both these men were trying to do.