Earlier this week, Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat hoping to unseat Ted Cruz from the United States Senate, delivered a striking speech about the power and necessity of protest. During a question and answer session with potential voters, an audience member– who declared himself to be from a “family of veterans” – expressed that he is frustrated with the “disrespect” exhibited by National Football League players who kneel during the national anthem. He asked O’Rourke whether he agreed with that frustration. The candidate could have given a safe, political answer, but instead he did this:
Over the course of an impassioned three minutes – all of which you should watch – O’Rourke rejects the notion that the protests are disrespectful, and then goes on to connect our current moment of protest with the long American history of Civil Rights struggle.
Beto O’Rourke is a white man, and it’s rare to hear white dudes make such strident and confident statements on the topic of racial justice protest. That he is running for the United States Senate – in Texas of all places – ups the proverbial ante. The speech is attracting attention right now, and that’s a good thing. O’Rourke is providing leadership for other white candidates who are shakier on these issues, while also using his privilege to advance important political goals. He’s modeling the power of courageous leadership when it comes to divisive issues.
There are a few things we should consider, though, as the internet heaps praise on the potential future Senator from Texas. First, it’s important to note that O’Rourke is not saying anything new. Colin Kaepernick has drawn equal parts praise and scorn for his leadership role in the NFL protests, and he has been consistent and disciplined about communicating the same things that O’Rourke says in the above video. Other leaders throughout the country have reinforced this case over and over, through every conceivable media channel. It’s nice to see white political leaders starting to follow their lead, but we should acknowledge that O’Rourke’s privilege plays a significant role in amplifying a message that he did not create.
Second, O’Rourke is a gifted orator. He has the natural politician’s ability to draw effortlessly and extemporaneously from history, literature, and contemporary experience at once, all while standing in front of a large group of people with a range of interests. For these reasons, his speech is getting the requisite kudos on social media. Other white folks who aspire to be accomplices in anti-racism work, however, are unlikely to match O’Rourke’s rhetorical brilliance; this gap between the real and the ideal should not be a barrier to speaking out against racism. Candidates for office speak publicly every day, under the most stressful personal scrutiny imaginable. Do I wish that every white, progressive politician could make a speech like this? Absolutely. Should every white person who aspires to be anti-racist be expected to get up tomorrow and make this case, with the same eloquence, at a local community meeting? Probably not, and to enforce that standard for anti-racist activism would be limiting. I talk to white folks about their aspiring activism every day, and one of the biggest barriers to entry is the sense that, if a white person speaks up about racism, their articulation of the problem must be flawless. Rhetorical perfection cannot be the short-term goal for white folks who are on the path to being active anti-racists.
Finally, from a partisan political perspective, O’Rourke is defying conventional wisdom about how Democrats position themselves to win elections, not just as a general case, but in the context of Texas, where Republicans tend to dominate statewide contests. The political punditry of the last generation preached moderation and triangulation for candidates like O’Rourke, encouraging them to adopt moderate positions on divisive social issues, in the interest of peeling off centrist, independent voters. The current zeitgeist, however, rewards not ambivalent moderation, but principled leadership on issues of extraordinary moral import. Time will tell whether O’Rourke’s strategy is electorally successful in the short term, as the current polling has him anywhere between two and ten points behind incumbent Senator Cruz.
Whether he wins or loses, however, by staking out principled stances on issues related to racial justice, Beto O’Rourke will motivate previously untapped voters, in a place where Democrats have lacked the courage and will to compete on the values that matter most to their political base. Short-term electoral victory is important, but building a durable coalition across lines of racial difference is perhaps the greatest existential challenge for American democracy today. If we’re willing to sacrifice our values for short-term political gain, we have no business being leaders. Here’s hoping that within a few election cycles, it won’t be unusual anymore to hear white male politicians flipping oratorical tables on the topic of race in America.