(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was published on June 12, 2020.)
I have tried to forge my own path in this business and respect the voices of other black commentators even when they diverge from my own opinions. Sadly, I’ve not been allowed to follow this path. The public and what my colleague Jeff Charles calls “Conservative, Inc.” have made it nearly impossible for me to ignore certain pundits who make my job harder every day. I can no longer stay silent, even in the face of the slings and arrows I know I’ll get for expressing myself here.
Candace Owens is a problem.
I first became aware of Candace Owens when someone shared a video from her old YouTube channel. She was excoriating celebrity hypocrisy. It made me laugh. I shared it also, happy to welcome another black, female conservative voice to the fray. The more the merrier! She never crossed my mind again until Kanye West dropped the MOAB on Twitter (a testament to his public influence even as some people still call him a sell-out). With one tweet, he blew up Candace’s spot overnight. He agreed to meet with her and President Trump and the rest is social media history. In one day, Candace went from obscure TPUSA spokeswoman to the definitive representation of black conservatism.
Now that she was under the microscope, Owens’ transgressions began to pile up. What, at first, was excitement on my part to see a young conservative on the national stage quickly digressed to discomfort, then out-and-out displeasure. I think at this point in my journey I have officially reached disgust.
Some people have pointed to Owens as a grifter. I can’t speak to who she is personally or what her motivations are. Maybe her “grifter” past was who she was before she “woke up.” Don’t know. Don’t care.
What is problematic for me and others like me is that white conservatives (and some black conservatives) have gleefully thrust Owens into the position of not only speaking for all black conservatives, but for the black community in general.
I hear so many white conservatives describe her as “articulate” and it makes me cringe. I find it reminiscent of how white liberals condescendingly fawned all over Obama as “articulate”. Owens parrots talking points — some of which actually have merit — but has neither the experience nor the historical knowledge to expound on those talking points. Worse, she does not have enough depth to draw out what should be the larger goal with those talking points — lifting up black America and promoting racial unity. She’s the punditry equivalent of what Rush Limbaugh so famously dubbed the “drive-by media.” She pulls up, throws a bomb, and then catches all the cash that rains down in the aftermath before darting off to the next crime scene.
In particular, it is Owens’ “plantation” rhetoric that has been so problematic, and it is a great example of how the conversation in black conservatism has advanced while Owens remains stuck in first gear.
Early on in the conversation, it wasn’t uncommon to hear black conservatives liken their “awakening” to walking off the plantation. It was a shocking and provocative illustration of how Democrats feel like they “own” us and our votes. At a time when new media was just beginning to take a seat in the mainstream, it served an illustrative purpose, but it was short-lived. As my friend Sonnie Johnson says, no black person enjoys being likened to a slave. We quickly moved on from the references. Point made. Now it’s time to persuade. In fact, here I am on a Fox News panel of black conservatives all the way back in 2013 (looking thinner and cuter…oh, time is such a cruel mistress) saying it’s time we move on from rhetoric to persuasion, to make the case for conservatism as a vehicle for black prosperity.
Somehow, Owens has managed to wheel us all the way back to the beginning of the conversation when we honestly really should be nearing the end (if there is such a thing). Her rhetoric is not made up of any persuasion. It’s negativity and bomb-throwing. Designed to rile up her audience — and let me tell you…her audience is not black people. This is never more obvious than when I or any other black conservative display even the slightest criticism. We’ll get responses from a couple of black people and then a thousand white conservatives.
I’ve been in this job for the better part of a decade. I’ve never been in it for fame (which should be obvious by now) but I have cultivated a reputation and small following. Five minutes after Owens’ crowning as THE BLACK CONSERVATIVE, every article I wrote that got national attention included a litany of comments from well-meaning white conservatives crediting Candace for my conversion, thanking her for waking up people like me and leading us “off the plantation.” When I made a benign comment on social media about it, I was immediately met with accusations of jealousy and pettiness.
A few people (some of them black, inexplicably) have even had the nerve to compare her to Harriet Tubman…which blows my mind. As someone who made a fictional film about Tubman that screened at the Toronto Black Film Festival, I found the sentiment particularly offensive. I’ve spent a great deal of time becoming intimate with Tubman’s history and let me tell you, Candace Owens is no Harriet Tubman…symbolically or otherwise. Let’s stop with that.
The trouble with Candace is that her first instinct is not to empower black people, but to indict us. She engages in victim-blaming at its worst. Instead of at least trying to understand the outrage at the racially motivated murder of Ahmaud Arbery, she spent an inordinate amount of time talking about his troubled past, his motivations, and justifying the armed response of the perpetrators. She spent almost no time talking about the past of the murderers. If that’s not blatant pandering, it’s at least grossly ignorant. How are black people supposed to take that? Are we really motivating struggling black Americans to seek a new path forward by blaming the victim of a racial crime for his own demise?
Since George Floyd’s death, she’s done nothing but disparage his name, gleefully recount his criminal past, and taken every opportunity to loudly declare that protests based on his death — WHICH WAS RECORDED ON VIDEO FOR ALL TO SEE AS HE BEGGED FOR HIS LIFE — are nothing but politics. As Dave Chappelle so deftly pointed out in a recent video, George Floyd isn’t “the guy” because he’s a saint. He’s “the guy” because he’s dead at the hands of an overzealous police officer. He was there…and now we’re here.
Certainly, some nefarious political actors have hijacked parts of the discussion, but it is heart-wrenchingly offensive and problematic for her — sadly the loudest voice for black conservatives — to completely ignore the sentiment and the years of history and frustration behind the protests. I’ve never in my life seen white Americans more willing to ask questions and hear answers than I have right now and that is because of the protests (not the riots…the protests) and yet, according to Owens, this is all nothing but race-baiting nonsense.
How on earth does that do a damn thing to empower the black community? She spends so much time complaining that left-wing media ignores the voices of black conservatives who have decided the Democrat party no longer represents them but then immediately and joyfully invalidates the voices of millions of black people asking to be heard.
It’s infuriating. Not only does it make her look bad, it forces the rest of us black folks on the right into the unenviable position of being associated with her beliefs. The left-wing media never makes any attempt to parse out the nuances of black thought. We’re stuck on Candace’s plantation by association.
I will be accused of trying to silence her, of being jealous, of being petty. One of Owens’ most problematic qualities as a national pundit is that her constant reframing of black complaints as “whining” gives shelter to a minority of conservatives who actually are racist and bigoted. They hold her up as proof that this is all just a game and that black people really have nothing to complain about.
I want peace. I want progress. I am not a conservative because of other conservatives. I am a conservative because I have served my community, loved my community, sacrificed for my black community. I have seen the destruction and devastation at the hands of Democrat policy for the last 60 years, even though they keep promising us that they’re the only path to prosperity. They use us as props…pretty much everyone does, to be honest. I have looked at the results of 60 years of lockstep voting and I find it wanting. I believe with every fiber of my being that the conservative — though not always Republican Party — principles of lower taxes, school choice, strong nuclear families, and a healthy application of the First and Second Amendments is a tremendous path to prosperity for the black community if only the message were allowed to be shared without politics. I believe that black culture is the purest form of American culture and we, as a nation, owe a great debt to that culture. I believe that racism and bigotry still exist, and that they will probably always exist in a fallen world. But I also believe that America is never finished striving to be better, greater, stronger. That is what makes us the best country on earth.
That is why I never have a problem standing up for the black community while at the same time espousing my conservative beliefs.
The trouble with Candace is that she is incapable of doing the same.