Beto can’t leverage his slave owner ancestry to gain Black voters’ trust

On Sunday, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) admitted in a Medium essay that he and his wife are descended from slave owners. O’Rourke focused on how learning this fact compelled him to understand that slavery has benefited him and his wife, Amy, as white people. He wrote that learning about his ancestry “only increases the urgency I feel to help change this country so that it works for those who have been locked-out of—or locked-up in—this system.” 

But if O’Rourke really cares about his slave owner ancestry, he should drop out of the presidential race and acknowledge that Black candidates, queer candidates, trans candidates, candidates with disabilities, or candidates of color should run instead. Here’s why.

Ostensibly, O’Rourke’s admission may look like a white man’s—and presidential candidate’s—honest attempt to reckon with his family and his country’s past of profiting off from the brutality and murder of Black bodies. 

To young Black people like me who have become radicalized by America’s anti-Blackness, however, O’Rourke’s admission is a political maneuver that holds no promise of genuine racial consciousness. Although O’Rourke proposes a variety of education, healthcare, and criminal justice reforms to undo to the effects of structural racism, the reality has always been that America will never reform its way out of racism. It will only reform the face of racism. And O’Rourke’s essay crafts a false tale of racial redemption that he can then weaponize, aligning himself with other white politicians who have sought to distance themselves from the ramifications of anti-Black policies. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for example, in May cited his time marching with Martin Luther King Jr. while being evasive on issues pertinent to Black voters. And in 2016, I disrupted a Bill Clinton speech and called him out for the consequences of his 1994 Crime Violent Crime and Prevention Bill. The bill’s harsher policies, like the life sentence for defendants with numerous felony charges or allowing prosecutors to charge 13-year-olds (who Hillary Clinton likened to being “super predators”) as adults, exacerbated the disproportionate rates at which Black people and people of color have already been incarcerated and enabled the racist narrative that urban youth are somehow inherently criminal.

As I was escorted out by police, the white people around me booed or averted my gaze. I wondered if they cared that Clinton’s supposed regret for the 1994 Crime Bill paled in comparison to the countless Black, brown, and poor lives that the bill had corrupted. I was so angered by their apathy to the fact that many Black people cannot afford to trust politicians’ lofty promises to confront racism. 

Of a younger era than the Clintons, O’Rourke appears to be a decent candidate for Black voters. He was endorsed by Beyoncé during his 2018 Senate campaign. When asked about football players “taking a knee” to address America’s anti-Blackness, O’Rourke said it’s reasonable for people to disagree with the political act of taking a knee but stated that there is “nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, anyplace.” And after his Senate campaign incorporated more language to address Black voters, especially women, 94% of Black women in Texas voted for O’Rourke.

But those headlines don’t negate that being a conventionally attractive white man has allowed O’Rourke many privileges and political advantages. He attended a boarding prep school in Virginia with financial aid, graduated from Columbia, and avoided jail time after a 1998 drunk driving charge. He also voted in favor of the Thin Blue Line Act, which allows the death penalty to be punishment for defendants that have killed police officers and was considered to be an anti-Black Lives Matter bill

He exhibits the same political inconsistency that young, Black voters like myself observe in most white, Democratic politicians who speak on Black issues but seldom follow through with policies that expose and confront systemic racism. Asked whether he considers himself a progressive or how exactly he would address foreign visitors that overstay their visas, O’Rourke responded, “I don’t know.” 

O’Rourke’s position on reparations, one of the 2020 presidential campaign season’s hot topics, has been especially tenuous. On the day of his presidential candidacy announcement in March, O’Rourke stated that he was not a supporter of traditional reparations. Confronted by a Black voter in South Carolina weeks later, O’Rourke cited a variety of reforms to address systemic racism but gave no clear support of reparations. By June, he had changed his tone in support of reparations, which he mentioned in his Medium essay.

When a white presidential candidate must be confronted and instructed by Black voters on how to address issues that affect Black communities, it exposes the reality that many white Americans haven’t been listening to the core of Black dissent throughout America’s history. It shows that many white politicians are still not equipped to effectively oppose and dismantle racism because they are a part of the white power structure. Black communities should not be expected to trust candidates who inadvertently weaponize Black suffering for the sake of votes or attempt to reposition white supremacist history as a chapter in America’s tale of racial redemption.

O’Rourke’s call for unifying America and overcoming bipartisanship fails to address how the Democratic Party has been instrumental in undermining Black political movements of the past and present. It fails to address how the Democratic Party has appropriated facets of these movements to give Black Americans the illusion of meaningful progress.

In a time when the Democratic Party hopes to oppose President Donald Trump by appearing “woke,” strategies around racial transparency fall short. The task of defeating Trumpism will be in reach only if the Democratic Party takes the notion of dismantling white nationalism and xenophobia seriously. This begins when the Democratic Party goes beyond passing reforms, like reparations or body cameras for police officers, that attempt to address racial inequality and moves toward a political practice that condemns systems, like capitalism, that further racism. Until this happens, potential Black voters like myself will see through the bravado of performative pleas for redemption.

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