WASHINGTON • Dr Ben Carson, the new Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has referred to slaves brought to the United States against their will as "immigrants", drawing quick condemnation from civil rights groups which cast his remarks as offensive.
He was making his first address to HUD staff, after his confirmation by the Senate last week.
Dr Carson began by sharing 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 Dr 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 added.
Enslaved Africans did not voluntarily go to the US and were denied freedom for hundreds of years.
"This is as offensive a remark as it gets," said Mr Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect.
The remarks sparked outrage on Twitter, including from actor Samuel L. Jackson.
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."
As Housing Secretary, Dr Carson is in a position to push for the revival and rejuvenation of poor neighbourhoods, as US President Donald Trump has promised.