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Why did Trump pick Ben Carson for housing secretary?

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It’s not about housing, it’s about “urban development”

Chicago’s South Side.
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One week before the election, president-elect Donald Trump’s website published a press release outlining his “New Deal for Black America,” which he teased at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina. “The conditions in our inner cities today are unacceptable,” states the document, calling Trump’s proposal for African Americans a “plan for urban renewal.” It also provides the most detailed description of Trump’s proposed urban policy.

With the surprise appointment of Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development—Trump’s sole African-American cabinet pick so far—the quick read is that Trump’s policy on “inner cities” is being predicated on a single misconception: that urban America equals Black America. That seems to be why he picked a black man to oversee his “plan” for African Americans.

Choosing Carson—a Baltimore-based neurosurgeon who has no experience in housing or urban development—for this job is not a sign that Trump “doesn’t care” about urban policy. By picking someone who declared himself unqualified for a cabinet position, it is apparent that Trump’s administration intended to appoint someone who wouldn’t bring his or her own agenda to the position.

Trump’s “New Deal for Black America” document very specifically spells out what will likely be Carson’s mandate. The plan for cities is filled with the usual phrases like “job creation,” “tax cuts,” and “immigration reform,” although with urban twists. There are also the typical infrastructure-building promises, but in this case there is also a nod to fixing “water systems,” a direct reference to Flint’s lead poisoning crisis.

As for education, Trump’s document claims that “school choice is the great civil rights issue of our time,” and advocates for a voucher system where parents can choose their kids’ schools. This is why he picked Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, an outspoken school choice advocate (those opposed to DeVos’s appointment say she will hobble the public school system). Carson has chimed in about Trump’s Black America plan in an op-ed for The Root about its education promises and how “the very worst schools in America are in cities run by Democrats.”

One thing that’s never mentioned in Trump’s big “urban renewal” plan? Housing, specifically the Fair Housing Act. If a HUD secretary could do one thing to help “inner cities”—and rural communities, for that matter—it would be to orchestrate a nationwide strategy to address the worst affordable housing crisis in this country’s history.

Yet there’s nothing anywhere in Trump’s plan here, or anywhere else in his policies, that mentions anything substantial about guaranteeing housing to all Americans. This is also the one place where Trump’s personal record is troubling: While working at his father’s company, he was sued for discrimination when it allegedly denied apartments to black tenants.

As for Carson specifically, he opposes a move to strengthen the Fair Housing Act and recently called subsidized housing efforts “failed socialist experiments.” (Carson says he was raised in a subsidized housing system in Detroit, although that has been disputed.)

It was easier to paint Trump’s “New Deal for Black America” in a more innocent light when it was framed as a document meant to court African-American votes before Election Day. Now the symbolism of the language is a bit more menacing. After all, there is no New Deal for Hispanic and Latino Americans, who are the largest ethnic demographic in the U.S. and who are far more likely, statistically speaking, to live in what Trump keeps referring to as “inner cities.”

Trump claiming that he will solve the problems of “inner-city” America by helping black Americans “left behind” sets up a false premise: that the so-called failure of cities—“You walk down the street, you get shot!” as he described it in one debate—has been caused by the African Americans who supposedly live there and who, therefore, need Trump to save them with an “increased presence of law enforcement.”

The term “urban renewal” is probably the most menacing part of Trump’s plan, as it hints at the Robert Moses-like leveling of blighted neighborhoods in the name of progress—Safety! Jobs! Education!—which displaced New York City’s people of color in disproportionate numbers (and was later copied by cities all over the U.S.).

Yet by putting an African-American man in charge of his “urban renewal” agenda, Trump’s administration can put policies in place that will disenfranchise black citizens while avoiding charges of overt racism.