“I was recently given documents showing that both Amy and I are descended from people who owned slaves. Along with other possessions listed in their property log were two human beings, Rose and Eliza.” So begins a post at Medium by presidential wannabe Robert Francis O’Rourke. (O’Rourke assumes that by now everyone knows that “Amy” is his wife’s name, which is just another indicator of how out of touch with reality he is.)
For most politicians and especially those with their sites set on the highest office in the land, news of being descended from slave owners is generally pretty unwelcome. Just ask Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Sen. Kamala Harris. But O’Rourke’s self-avowal has an almost jubilant tone to it. You can almost see him kicking up his heels and shouting when he reports in paragraph three that Amy’s distant kin also includes a member of the Confederate Army.
So why is O’Rourke so ecstatic? He eventually gets around to explaining:
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.
Ownership of other human beings conferred advantages not just to Andrew Jasper [O-Rourke’s paternal great-great-great grandfather] and Frederick Williams [his maternal great-great-great grandfather], but to Jasper’s and Williams’ descendants as well. 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.
That those enslaved Americans owned by my ancestors were denied their freedom, denied the ability to amass wealth, denied full civil rights in America after slavery also had long term repercussions for them and their descendants.
Let me stop O’Rourke here to point out that that generalization is highly speculative and may not apply to all families that owned slaves. In fact, as O’Rourke presents it — “In some way, and in some form, that advantage would pass through to me and my children” — it’s not all that clear it applies to his own. Consider that fortunes are made and lost. That’s true not only for slave owners and their descendants by for slaves and their descendants as well. Take media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who according to Anestry.com, descends from slaves. Today Winfrey is worth $3.1 billion. There’s no way of knowing whether she would have amassed the same fortune if her family history were otherwise. (For scoffers, I recommend reading “The Verger,” a short story by W. Somerset Maugham that delves into the impact of even relatively minor changes on future outcomes.)
O’Rourke also conveniently neglects the myriad government programs and entitlements that have been passed in the last half century in an attempt to level the playing field.