Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke from Texas announced on Sunday that both he and his wife are descendants of people who owned slaves.
On Twitter, he stated, “I was recently given documents showing that both Amy and I are descended from people who owned slaves.”
According to records found from his families’ lineage, O’Rourke’s paternal great-great-great-grandfather, Andrew Cowan Jasper owned two slaves. Two women’s names, Rose and Eliza, were listed on a property log belonging to Jasper in the 1850s and were to be left to his descendants according to his will.
Also, other records show evidence that his maternal great-great-great-grandfather also owned slaves in 1860s. And his wife, Amy, has documents that prove that an ancestor who served in the Confederate Army, as well as another ancestor, owned slaves at one time.
The revelation of his lineage is not one that is all that uncommon here in the US, especially for those whose families hail from the South. However, Beto is taking this newfound information and using it to push his presidential campaign and the hope for slavery reparations forward.
The Democratic former US Representative says, “Something that we’ve been talking about in town hall meetings – the legacy of slavery in the United States – now has a much more personal connection.”
He went on to say, “I benefit from a system that my ancestors built to favor themselves at the expense of others. That 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.”
And if posed with similar lineage findings, many of us would probably feel the same way. It’s blatantly clear that slavery was a terrible evil that existed in our nation and one that we are still feeling the repercussions of. A sense of remorse and guilt may even accompany the knowledge that you or I am related to someone who could have participated in such injustices.
We can even allow it, as it does with O’Rourke, to seek out changes in our government, to right the wrongs of the past.
As O’Rourke wrote, “Rose and Eliza were denied their freedom and the benefits that their labor produced; they and their children were then denied their civil rights after the end of Reconstruction; and their descendants endured open terrorism, economic exclusion, and racism in the form of Jim Crow, lynchings, convict leasing, voter suppression, redlining, predatory lending, and mass incarceration.”
The question is, how far do you take it? When does a need to undo a past that can’t be undone become impractical and unrealistic? After all, it’s been over 150 years since the civil war ended. No one alive then is still in existence. That is not to say that the effects of slavery ended immediately, far from it.
Terrible wrongs were done, and they should be noted and apologized for. And some things can be done to make up for those wrongs to be sure. But to say ‘let’s just write a check” and think that it will fix the problem is foolhardy at best. And at worst, it would only intensify the situation.
The whole idea behind slavery reparations is to make up for the crimes and atrocities that African Americans faced as a result of slavery and to “restore the black community to the economic position it would have if it had not been subjected to slavery and discrimination,” according to economist Robert Browne.
However, let’s look at this realistically. First of all, it’s been over 150 years since the end of slavery. Reparation was owed to those who were freed all those years ago. Giving a great-great-great-great grandchild they never met money doesn’t change what happened. Secondly, only a small percentage of Americans ever actually owned slaves. Thirdly, the multi-ethnic background of today’s American population ensures that most Americans don’t have a direct, or even indirect, link to slavery.
Then you have to consider; if slavery in the Americas had never happened, most slavery descendants wouldn’t be Americans at all. They would Africans, living in third world countries with resources, education, and economics that are far worse than what African Americans ever experience.
To quote the socialist Bernie Sanders, there are “better ways” to fix the problem than “writing a check.” Things like addressing inequalities in the law, offering scholarships and education, and changing the economy so that it ensures equality.