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Conservatives’ obsession with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s high school, explained

Dance like nobody is tweeting about you.

116th Congressional Member-Elect Class Photo
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went to high school in the Westchester County town of Yorktown — a fact that was “uncovered” on Tuesday by the leading conservative intellectual journal Gateway Pundit, which breathlessly reported “EXCLUSIVE: PHOTOS of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or ‘Sandy’ as She Was Known at Her Elite High School in Yorktown — NOT in the Bronx.”

The reporting in question consisted of a former classmate of Ocasio-Cortez’s sending Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft what appear to be a couple of shots of pages from their school yearbook.

There’s nothing in any way extraordinary about the yearbook photos, though they do establish that she went by “Sandy Ocasio” at the time. The bulk of the article consists of quotes from the anonymous classmate talking about how it was a nice school.

None of this would be a surprise to someone who had read Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign website, which explicitly says that while she was born in the Bronx, “she ended up attending public school in Yorktown — 40 minutes north of her birthplace” because her parents went in search of a better educational opportunity for her.

Ocasio-Cortez has attracted outsize attention ever since she won an upset primary bid against former Rep. Joe Crowley, as both an icon to young progressives and a hate figure for the right. Politicians’ authenticity or lack thereof is a perpetual topic of criticism, and conservatives, who are strangely obsessed with Ocasio-Cortez in general, lately have seized on the notion that she is in some sense faking her life story. Melissa Mackenzie of the American Spectator explains it as part of a larger trend in which progressive politicians seek to identify themselves with oppressed groups for political advantage while themselves being privileged.

But that sentiment says less about her than it does about conservatives’ somewhat questionable grasp of ethnic and cultural identity, the millennial generation, and what appeals to progressive voters.

AOC’s non-secret past at Yorktown High School

Much of the issue, such as it is, can be summed up in this exchange between Ocasio-Cortez and the conservative pundit Michael Knowles.

Ocasio-Cortez, upon taking possession of her House office, celebrates her upward mobility in life by referencing the lyrics to a famous song by Jennifer Lopez, another Bronx-born Puerto Rican woman. Knowles retorts that she went to school in an upscale suburb.

It’s not entirely obvious what citing average net worth statistics in Yorktown is supposed to prove. Manhattan, where I grew up, is obviously an extremely wealthy place on average. At the same time, it has a 16 percent poverty rate, and that’s probably a lowball estimate of the level of economic deprivation: Housing costs are so high in Manhattan precisely because it’s rich on average.

Newsmax’s John Cardillo, who I believe was the first conservative to raise the issue, suggested that having lived in Yorkville contradicted the “Bronx hood upbringing she’s selling.”

In reality, however, the upbringing Ocasio-Cortez is selling has always been a story about upward mobility purchased by leaving a disadvantaged neighborhood and the injustice facing those who lacked that opportunity. (She also went to Boston University, not “Ivy League Brown University.”)

Here’s how she put it on her campaign website:

From an early age, Alexandria grew up with a deep understanding of income inequality. The state of Bronx public schools in the late 80s and early 90s sent her parents on a search for a solution. She ended up attending public school in Yorktown — 40 minutes north of her birthplace. As a result, much of her early life was spent in transit between her tight-knit extended family in the Bronx and her daily student life. It was clear to her, even then, that the zip code a child was born in determined much of their destiny. The 40-minute drive represented a vastly different quality of available schooling, economic opportunity, and health outcomes.

In fact, it’s likely that no previous congressional candidate’s high school career has ever been subjected to as much scrutiny as Ocasio-Cortez. That’s in part simply because she’s very young and was in high school very recently. But she was also a noteworthy high school student who won a prestigious ISEF science fair prize in 2007 and consequently had an asteroid named after her.

Since nothing about this is scandalous, opponents have taken to rummaging around more deeply into her childhood to prove she’s a faker.

Sandy from the suburbs

At the end of the day, the problem with accusing Ocasio-Cortez of pretending to grow up in desperate poverty in the South Bronx is that she never claimed she did.

So the revelation that she used to go by “Sandy” seems promising for her critics as a way to assert that she is somehow faking her Puerto Rican identity, something she unquestionably has espoused since entering public life. The reality, however, is that obviously many people go by different nicknames at different points in their life. And if someone can’t understand why Alexandria from the Bronx may have preferred to go by Sandy as a suburban teen, only to reclaim ethnic pride in college, then that says a lot more about their lack of understanding of young people’s lives than anything else.

But her critics are so sure there’s something scandalous about her life in the mid- to late aughts that a random video clip of her dancing (allegedly in high school, though in fact in college) went viral when posted on Twitter by AnonymousQ1776, who claimed that it would show her “acting like the clueless nitwit she is.”

What’s actually going on here is that, back in 2009, the indie rock band Phoenix released a song called “Lisztomania,” referencing the fan frenzy that accompanied performances of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt back in the 1840s.

In early 2010, an anonymous individual posting as avoidantconsumer made a mashup video that spliced together dance scenes from various John Hughes movies with “Lisztomania” as a soundtrack. The video went viral but was rapidly taken down by YouTube for alleged copyright violation. This happened at a moment of considerable cultural ferment around remixes, fair use, mashups, and related concepts, and people around the country responded by creating their own “Lisztomania” videos that featured themselves reenacting scenes from John Hughes movies.

AOC featured in one such production at Boston University, which proves mostly that she is a cool and telegenic young woman whom a wide swath of similarly aged people find relatable.

Which is exactly why she makes conservatives so mad.

America is changing, and conservatives are alarmed

Questions of identity and representation always matter in politics, and contestation around the true meaning of politicians’ identity is a perennial element of political debate. Liberals are mad — constantly — that a rich New Yorker who lives in a gold-plated condominium has managed to sell himself as the hero of white working-class rural America. And conservatives had a host of different hang-ups about former President Barack Obama’s identity. He was either secretly Muslim or secretly Kenyan or secretly named Barry or some combination of the three.

Ocasio-Cortez became a star by winning a primary against a top leader in the House Democratic hierarchy. The fact that he was white while representing a majority-minority district while she is Latina doubtless played some role in her victory, so conservatives seem to have decided that attacking her identity is the way to bring her down.

But Ocasio-Cortez, in a particularly potent way, also personally represents a lot of conservative fears about demographic change more broadly in the United States.

The Republican Party’s electoral performance with the youngest cohort of Americans is dismal, in part because young white people are more liberal than their elders and in large part because the white share of the population is lower in the younger cohorts. The fact that the youngest Democrats are also the ones likeliest to self-identify as “socialists” or otherwise espouse relatively far-left views only makes this trend more alarming to conservatives.

Ocasio-Cortez, as a young Latina, personally reflects those trends. But she’s also — as effective politicians tend to be — able to transcend the narrowest possible construal of her identity. She won a science prize, went to a good college, was in an indie rock internet meme video, and is a Star Trek fan.

It would be convenient for conservatives if she were in some sense a fraud rather than simply someone with crossover political appeal. But it just isn’t true.