"There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less," said Carson. Photograph: (Reuters)
The comparison elicited sharp outrage. Actor Samuel L Jackson tweeted, 'MOTHAFU*** PLEASE!'
Ben Carson, the new secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), on Monday referred to slaves brought to the United States against their will as "immigrants", drawing quick condemnation from civil rights groups who cast his remarks as offensive.
It was Carson's first address to the staff at HUD. He was confirmed by the US Senate last week.
By way of introduction, Carson shared anecdotes from his past career as a neurosurgeon and praised immigrants who worked long hours to build a better life for their children.
"There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less," said Carson, who is African-American.
"But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land," he said.
This is how Africans were shipped as cargo aboard ships. Photo source; WIkimedia via Jbolden030170. (Others)
Enslaved Africans did not voluntarily come to the United States and were denied freedom for hundreds of years. "This is as offensive a remark as it gets," said Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect.
The remarks sparked outrage on Twitter, including from the actor Samuel L Jackson. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also criticised Carson.
Samuel L Jackson wrote in a tweet, "MUTHAFU*** PLEASE!" [The actor did not use the asterisks in his tweet.]
A HUD spokesman later called the tempest "the most cynical interpretation of the secretary's remarks to an army of welcoming HUD employees. No one honestly believes he equates voluntary immigration with involuntary servitude".
Carson was well received by the hundreds of HUD employees in the room and got a standing ovation at the close of his remarks.
As housing secretary, Carson is in a position to play a leading role in reviving poor neighbourhoods, as Republican President Donald Trump has promised.
As a Republican presidential candidate, Carson said he did not believe a Muslim should be president. After dropping out of the race, Carson threw his support to Trump, who named him housing secretary after winning the November election.
In 2015 Ben Carson shared his "personal" view that the ancient Egyptian pyramids were used to store grains, not to inter dead pharaohs as archaelogists claim, CNN reports.
(WION with inputs from AFP)