What Beto O'Rourke gets wrong in his appeal for black votes — and he's not alone

During his Senate campaign, O'Rourke at least appeared to be speaking from the heart. Now, it feels like pandering

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published July 16, 2019 10:20AM (EDT)

Beto O'Rourke (Getty/Paras Griffin)
Beto O'Rourke (Getty/Paras Griffin)

As a black person living in America, I've found the last 10 years both inspiring and repulsive. America elected its first black president twice, and Obama’s rising star sparked a wave of hope, black intellectualism and, for the first time in my life, black patriotism. And yet so many unarmed African Americans have been gunned down on video by trigger-happy police officers who are rarely — almost never — held accountable. The change-and-hope seekers of the Obama generation marched and protested and rallied and tweeted during these cop cases only to be let down time and time again, until the dwindling flame of that resistance energy completely washed out after Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th president in 2016. After all of that fighting, hoping and wishing for change, we got it wrong.

Trump's racist rants, actions and policies have been a matter of record since before he took the job, from encouraging the beating of black people at his rallies to reportedly saying, “Why are we having all these people from sh*thole countries come here?” referring to Haiti, El Salvador and countries in African as part of a bipartisan immigration bill.

Over the weekend #RacistInChief and #RacistPresident trended on Twitter in response to Trump’s racist Twitter attacks on four brave and relatively new members of Congress: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, whom the president claimed should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."  Trump then doubled down on his racist sentiments in a series of attack tweets this morning.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham defended Trump and his tweets, calling the lawmakers communists. “We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists,” Graham said on Fox News. “They hate Israel, they hate our own country.”

Trump has mastered the art of trolling, and people — including me — who were enraged by his racism directed our energy toward challenging him and Graham, expecting them to see their own faults. We are getting it wrong.

This comes on the heels of 2020 Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke discovering that his paternal great-great-great grandfather Andrew Cowan Jasper owned two women in the 1850s, Rose and Eliza.

O’Rourke, apparently shocked by this shocking revelation of his "personal connection" to slavery, outlined in a Medium post his plan to offer African Americans a significant amount of funding in areas where we have been systemically overlooked:

As a person, as a candidate for the office of the Presidency, I will do everything I can to deliver on this responsibility.

In addition to making significant changes to education policy (immediately address $23 billion in underfunding for minority-majority public schools), economic policy (ensuring equal pay, deploying capital to minority- and women-owned businesses, $25 billion in government procurement to these same businesses), healthcare (universal healthcare and home health visits to women of color to reverse trend in maternal and infant mortality) and criminal justice (police accountability, ending the drug war, and expunging arrest records for nonviolent drug crimes), I will continue to support reparations, beginning with an important national conversation on slavery and racial injustice.

Beto is trailing the current frontrunners for the Democratic nomination. And in South Carolina, a key primary state that's seen as a bellwether for black voter support, he's not even registering in a new Fox News poll. There are black people like me in South Carolina, many of whom enjoy exercising their voting rights, so maybe this new plan is his play for their support. But just like the hope-and-change seekers, and the people who believe their righteous anger will cure Trump and Graham of their racism, Beto is getting it wrong.

Beto is getting it wrong because his stance now seems purely reactionary: a cheap attempt at swaying the African American vote before he's sucked completely out of the race. It feels similar to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg's Douglass Plan, which magically appeared after he caught heat from how poorly he handled a police shooting in his city, where he had fired the city's first black police chief for illegally taping officers suspected of making racial slurs, which they had. But Buttigieg and Beto aren't wrong for getting it wrong — they are merely pulling from a failed playbook that has been left for them by other white politicians hungry for black acceptance.

The Trump haters are wrong when they think their tweets, marches, books and speeches will change him. Trump is a racist and will likely always be a racist. He's done a great job at proving that throughout his career even before he entered politics, from his unfair persecution of the Central Park 5 to when he refused to rent apartments to black people in his New York real estate days. He's a 73-year-old know-it-all who doesn't know much after all, not an idealistic teenager who can still grow into a decent human being.

The hope-and-change seekers were the closest to getting it right, even though in the end we — I'm in this group too — got it wrong as well. We accepted Obama's hope and change as more than words or a simple slogan. For us it was a feeling, and we believed it was strong enough to drum up real systemic change. Seeing a black president has definitely made me feel more American, but you can't take that to the bank. And hope isn't bulletproof — count the number of unarmed African Americans shot by police during and after the Obama era as evidence of that.

I believe we still need hope as we push toward change, but we won't get there by asking oppressors not to be oppressors. (A main perk of being an oppressor is feeling like you don't have to listen to the oppressed.) And we won't heal race relations in America by rewarding underperforming candidates for pandering to black people.

One time Beto got it right happened during his (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to take Ted Cruz's Senate seat: At a town hall, O'Rourke gave a passionate response to a person trying to condemn Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem before games. "Nonviolently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it. That is why they are doing it. And I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place.”

That moment felt real. O'Rourke took the time to consider why Kap takes a knee and shared that message in an engaging  way that sincerely addressed the anger and frustration that many feel. Which is why I was surprised to read in March of this year that Beto didn't strongly support reparations initially, but rather, during a campaign stop in Iowa, stated that he feels “it is important to confront the truth about how black people have been treated in the U.S." No speech, no strong declaration, just a call to learn history, as if the idea of reparations isn't directly connected to what Kap is fighting for, which I'm sure he understands, as he clearly articulated Kap's stance last year.

Shortly after that Iowa campaign stop, he told Al Sharpton at his National Now Network conference in Houston that he supports a bill that would establish a commission to study the issue of reparations and make recommendations about possible apologies or compensation. Supporting the commissioning of a study on reparations is a politically convenient way of passing the buck, no pun intended. 2018 Beto seemed to have had it right — he spoke directly, seemingly from the heart, and without equivocation — but his claim now to "continue to support reparations" just looks like the same old basic political pandering.

The correct path will revolve around us educating ourselves on all of the issues and how they affect us, supporting antiracist politicians who have a history of understanding black issues — before campaign season, even — and then investing in those leaders to keep them in office while holding them accountable. The 2020 presidential election is a chance for us to get it right. In order to do so, we have to make our advocacy and this election less about Trump's racist tweets, Beto's family history or Mayor Pete's phone calls to Al Sharpton, and more about us and what we really need to thrive.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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