The Sins of Beto O’Rourke’s Great-Great-Great Grandfathers

Beto O’Rourke speaks at the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami, Fla., June 26, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Beto O’Rourke’s announcement that he was “recently given documents showing that both Amy and I are descended from people who owned slaves” illuminates a great deal about presidential campaigning in 2019.

O’Rourke feels the country must know about the status of his great-great-great grandfathers on both sides. That’s five generations, roughly 170 years. Perhaps you think slavery continues to have a great impact on American society of 2019, or perhaps you think that its impact is minor compared with more recent events and changes in American society. Either way, you probably would find it surprising that a white man with roots in the American South is surprised by this, and that he feels the public should know about it as if it is some grand revelation.

O’Rourke declares, “the legacy of slavery in the United States now has a much more personal connection.” Should it matter? Should O’Rourke find slavery even worse now that he knows what his great-great-great grandfathers did? Should he feel guilt over the actions of his great-great-great grandfathers? Is O’Rourke somehow morally deficient or flawed because of the actions of his great-great-great grandfathers? (Is this why O’Rourke jumped on the “the Betsy Ross flag is hurtful” bandwagon so quickly?)

O’Rourke contends that he has unjustly benefited from the actions of his great-great-great grandfathers: “They were able to build wealth on the backs and off the sweat of others, wealth that they would then be able to pass down to their children and their children’s children. In some way, and in some form, that advantage would pass through to me and my children. I benefit from a system that my ancestors built to favor themselves at the expense of others.”

But O’Rourke doesn’t have to go back five generations to find a system that treats him better because of his lineage. You may recall that in 1998, 26-year-old O’Rourke was driving drunk in a 75 mph zone of an interstate when he lost control of his Volvo and hit a truck. The impact sent O’Rourke’s car across the center median, where it came to a complete stop. Then, according to a witness, O’Rourke “attempted to leave the scene,” the reports say. O’Rourke blew a 0.136 and a 0.134 on police breathalyzers, above the legal limit of a 0.10 blood alcohol level at the time, according to the reports.  He was arrested at the scene and charged with DWI but later completed a court-approved diversion program, and the charges were dismissed.

You want to talk about benefiting from the status of your forefathers? How about getting extraordinarily lenient consequences from the criminal-justice system for a DUI accident that easily could have killed someone — when your dad is a judge? But the candidate has no interest in talking about that incident at length because that’s not an abstract benefit of being white; that’s a particular benefit of being Beto O’Rourke.

He writes, “I will continue to support reparations, beginning with an important national conversation on slavery and racial injustice.” O’Rourke doesn’t get into how those reparations would work — how one would determine who is qualified to receive reparations, who one would determine who is required to pay reparations, how the system would handle those who had ancestors who both owned slaves and were slaves, how you handle those whose ancestors immigrated after slavery ended, and so on. Like many Democrats, O’Rourke hides behind the vague declaration that it’s time to have a “national conversation.” This is disingenuous. No one calling for a “national conversation” is willing to accept that conversation ending with the conclusion that reparations would be a bad idea.

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