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“I benefit from a system that my ancestors built”: Beto O’Rourke says his ancestors owned slaves

The presidential candidate’s fight for reparations just got more personal.

Beto O’Rourke speaking onstage in front of a microphone.
Beto O’Rourke speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame Dinner on June 9, 2019.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke has been vocal on the campaign trail about addressing racial injustice — and the issue has gotten more personal after the Guardian published an investigation into O’Rourke’s roots that found he and his wife are both the descendants of slave owners.

O’Rourke wrote in a Medium post on Sunday that he and his wife, Amy Sanders O’Rourke, are the descendants of slave owners.

The candidate published the names of two of the women owned by his great-great-great-grandfather Andrew Cowan Jasper, who lived in Kentucky in the early 18th century, whose past was first reported in the Guardian investigation. The women — Rose and Eliza — are listed in the 1850 census and were sold for about $800 during an estate auction after Jasper’s death.

“Something that we’ve been thinking about and talking about in town hall meetings and out on the campaign — the legacy of slavery in the United States — now has a much more personal connection,” O’Rourke wrote.

O’Rourke also noted that his maternal great-great-great-grandfather most likely owned slaves, as did his wife’s ancestors.

The Guardian investigation, published on Sunday, used Ancestry.com to find that his past was closely tied with the Confederacy and slavery — a fact the O’Rourkes said they didn’t know before.

In his post, O’Rourke said he recognizes how his family has benefited from slavery while the descendants of Rose and Eliza have most likely not experienced those same fortunes.

“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,” he wrote.

In his post, O’Rourke introduced measures he would take as president to address the system that has historically been unfair to the black community.

  • $23 billion in funding minority-majority public schools
  • Equal pay
  • $25 billion in government spending on minority- and women-owned businesses
  • Universal health care
  • Home health visits to women of color to address higher maternal and infant mortality rates
  • Police accountability
  • Ending the drug war
  • Removing arrest records for nonviolent drug crimes

In the past, however, O’Rourke has stopped short of supporting cash reparations. In a June interview with The Root, the candidate said that everyone must understand the history of slavery in the US if they were to tackle the damages caused by it, and said he feared cash reparations would hamper that effort.

O’Rourke isn’t the first national political figure to learn recently that he’s descended from slave owners: NBC News released a report last week that revealed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s ancestors were slave owners as well. McConnell, who opposes reparations, initially declined to comment and later compared himself to Barack Obama because they “both are the descendants of slave owners.”

The fact, however, that the Senate majority leader is debating with other lawmakers about reparations is a feat in itself. The issue that was once tiptoed around by Democratic candidates — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders dismissed the idea in 2016 — has now become a full-blown political debate among 2020 candidates. As Vox’s P.R. Lockhart puts it:

When 2020 presidential candidates first began discussing reparations in February and March, it marked a turn in a primary contest in which black voters and their continued concerns about the economy are expected to play a significant role. That the attention to reparations has remained so prominent in the months since speaks to a series of changes that have occurred in recent years — namely, the increased academic understanding of and public attention to the ways the history of slavery and discrimination have fueled disparities like the racial wealth gap, which shows that the median white household is 10 times wealthier than the median black one.

These changes, coupled with a wave of grassroots activism around racial inequality and economic injustice, have helped produce a shift in mainstream attention to reparations.

Revelations about political leaders’ family histories are adding another layer to that debate.