Candace Owens makes a rapid ascent in black conservatism

|     Rebecca Nelson     |

THE lights must be low, the music deafening, the bass thumping – this is not your grandmother’s Republican mixer. No, really: Candace Owens knows that the grandmothers of the people coming most likely vote Democratic. Their parents probably do, too. Hell, the people who’ve shown up no doubt did as well, unthinkingly, before they opened their eyes and their ears and their minds.

All the more reason for things to pop, which is why Owens, a 29-year-old rising right-wing star and communications director for conservative student group Turning Point USA, is agitatedly giving directions to the crew at the Globe Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. This is the inaugural rally of Blexit, her three-month-old campaign to encourage African Americans (and Latinos, and other minorities) to leave the Democratic Party – that is, mount a massive “black exit” from the left. For too long, Owens tells me, African Americans have been “mentally enslaved” on the Democratic plantation, and it’s high time they became “free.”

“Sixty years black people have been voting the same. What have we gotten back?” she says. “That’s the plantation. We do the work, we make sure you get elected every four years. You get the power, and we get absolutely nothing back.”

Around her, volunteers in neon Blexit-branded sweatshirts mill about, waiting to be called into service. One asks Owens which media outlets are covering the festivities. “Breitbart,” she rattles off. “Vice. The Washington Post Magazine, in all my insanity.” She gives me a wide smile and points to my open notebook. “I never want to read that.”

The Globe is outfitted to accommodate what Owens has named a “declaration of independence”: Neon-coloured signs – “Build the Wall,” “Off the Plantation” – have been placed carefully among the hundreds of black folding chairs, ready for attendees to hoist in the air. Two giant fans flank the stage, filled with confetti, because what coup d’etat is complete without confetti? Outside, in the placid sunshine of southern California in January, volunteers pass out Blexit sweatshirts and instruct those entering to put them on. (Even the attendant in the women’s washroom, handing out paper towels and selling Kit Kats, is wearing one.) The revolution will be live-streamed, tweeted and Instagrammed, and Owens knows what it takes to put on a show.

Attendees enter the Globe Theater for a Blexit rally in downtown Los Angeles
Supporters attend a the Blexit rally in Los Angeles
Candace Owens stands backstage with Blexit rally speaker Will Witt at the Globe Theatre in Los Angeles
Blexit attendees wait to enter the Globe Theatre in downtown Los Angeles

A few minutes before she kicks things off, she finally stops running around, and we perch on black leather couches in the green room. “This means everything to me,” she says. She’s still on edge but feels better now that the theater has filled with patriots in red “Make America Great Again” caps and phones, so many phones, lifted in the air to document everything, even before anything starts. There are 500 or so people in the audience; it’s standing room only. Owens sports what can only be described as rally-chic: neon yellow Blexit sweatshirt, black skinny jeans and strappy three-inch stilettos that she wears, impossibly, throughout the afternoon (her secret, she tells me, is to buy a half-size bigger, which leaves room for the swelling). From backstage, we hear a chant erupt from the crowd: “Build! The! Wall! Build! The! Wall!” Owens grins. Her fiance, George Farmer, the chairman of Turning Point UK and son of Conservative British politician Michael Farmer, lets loose a jubilant fist pump.

Since her career in politics began just a year and a half ago, Owens has become a provocative force on YouTube and Twitter and, of course, as a frequent contributor to Fox News. Police brutality, she says, is not a concern “whatsoever” for the black community, and accounts of rising white supremacy are media fabrications. She’s racked up nearly nine million YouTube views and one million followers on Twitter. She has met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office and, perhaps more impressive, has dazzled Kanye West.

Just eight per cent of black voters identify as Republican or lean toward the party, according to Pew Research Center. Owens represents a counternarrative, a surprising poster child for an old set of ideas around African Americans and conservatism. With her youth, charisma and innate instinct for viral outrage, she has supplanted the staid likes of Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson as the face of the African-American right. But how seriously should we take her?

“This is the revolution,” she tells the crowd in Los Angeles, “and we are going to save America.” Never mind that Trump’s approval rating with black voters hovers around 10 per cent, according to Gallup. This is just the beginning.

Blexit was born from a chance encounter with Nigel Farage in February 2018. For her entire political career – at that point, seven months – Owens had dreamed of helming a black revolt against the left. At last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where she had participated in a panel discussing “How the Far Left and the Mainstream Media Got in Bed Together,” she was sitting backstage when Farage, the British politician who spearheaded Brexit, waltzed in. It hit her like a thunderbolt: There needs to be a Blexit.

She created a website, a line of colorful merchandise and a tagline: “We free.”

“Black people aren’t free in this country,” she says, “but we’re on the way.” It’s the morning after the Los Angeles rally, and we’re having coffee in the restaurant at the five-star hotel where Owens is staying. Farmer is also here, because his unremitting presence at her side this weekend is non-negotiable. It is 8:30, and I am still exhausted from the rally. She managed the entire event and is upbeat and effervescent.

“The left thinks black people are stupid,” Owens tells me. “Black people, we keep proving them right. That’s the problem.” Her logic is so certain, her presence so self-assured, that it feels like everything would be easier if you just believed her. She punctuates her statements with “OK,” but it sounds more like “uhkay?,” which makes you feel like you must be some kind of idiot if you don’t see the sense in what she’s saying.

Owens’ approach mirrors Trump’s in its brash, personality-driven rhetoric, in her frequent use of the third person, in her caustic skewering of the left. During our interview, when I ask her what happened after she left college, she smirks. “What happened! I can’t even hear that anymore without laughing.” She’s referring to the title of Hillary Clinton’s post-2016-election book. “What happened? I lost. The end.”

She says she doesn’t understand why critics think Trump is racist and questions the modern-day existence of the Ku Klux Klan. When I ask whether she believes white supremacy still exists, she shoots back, “Define white supremacy,” and then defines it as “third-wave feminism.” It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day when we meet for our interview, and she is certain that King would have voted for Trump.

Says Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator and longtime adviser to Ben Carson who counts Owens as a friend: “She’s channeling Trump when she’s speaking. Because sometimes she can be unfiltered, and sometimes she can be pretty sassy and not always sound like a lady. She can be a little gangster-esque.” But, he says, “her message is very substantive.”

Central to that message is that African Americans – all minorities, really – have been used by the “Democrat” Party (never “Democratic,” a verbal tic common on the right and intended, it seems, as a pretty sick burn). We can draw a straight line, Owens says, from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which expanded welfare, to black single mothers dependent on government today: Welfare is generally directed to single parents, which encourages fathers to leave their children and would-be wives. The problem, she argues, is not contained to politicians and policy. It’s the left writ large: the liberals who run the mainstream media, who craft Hollywood movies and public school curriculums and “Sesame Street.”

To Owens, the left’s espousal of permanent victimhood is one of its most insidious lies: “It’s because of racism, because of some imaginary white boogeyman, that you’re never gonna be successful.” That mentality, she says, leads to excuses rather than action. “We call it the Oppression Olympics,” she says. ” ‘I’m black, you’re white, so I’m more oppressed than you.’ ‘Well, I’m a woman and you’re a man, OK, so I’m more oppressed than you.’ ‘I’m a black woman and so I’m more oppressed than you.’ ‘I’m a disabled black woman’ – that’s really, if you want to get to the top of the hierarchy of oppression, you’ve got to be a disabled, black woman, and then you win.”

Do you think a black, disabled person, I ask, has it harder in life than, I don’t know, a white man?

“First off, no. Let me tell you, if anything in this society, there’s almost a level of black privilege now.” She explains, “He can’t say anything” – she gestures toward Farmer, who’s white – or else “he’s called a racist. I can say anything that I want because I’m black. So that’s a whole new privilege, that black people get away with saying things that white people could never, ever, ever in any context say.”

America, she says, is not a racist country. While she says there will always be individual racists – “There’s always going to be somebody ignorant that hates somebody because of the colour of their skin” – “the question is, is it affecting me from getting from point A to point B? Is it societal? Are there laws in place that make it impossible for me as a black woman to do something that a white man can accomplish? And the answer is no.”

She waves a dismissive hand at the tony Beverly Hills restaurant. “I don’t care if someone is sitting in this restaurant going, ‘Look at that black girl.’ I don’t care. Have a good day.”

What about systemic racism? I ask. What about housing policies from the 1950s and ‘60s that discriminated against black people, largely preventing them from accumulating wealth that white people have through homeownership? Do you think any of that has affected –

She cuts me off. “No, none of it has affected anything. No. I think any person today can be successful if they follow very simple rules in their lives. Stay out of trouble, don’t have children before you get married. And get a job.” These steps, she says, are proven to decrease poverty. “Our community does not follow these rules at all.”

These are not new ideas. Owens’ belief in the value of personal responsibility derives from Booker T Washington, who called for black self-reliance and a strong work ethic. Washington argued that African Americans should accept discrimination for the time being while working towards economic self-determination. “I have begun everything with the idea that I could succeed,” he wrote in “Up From Slavery,” his autobiography, “and I never had much patience with the multitudes of people who are always ready to explain why one cannot succeed.”

The Democratic Party-as-plantation line also has deep roots. Richard Nixon referred to it during his 1968 presidential campaign. Black conservatives have been using the line since at least 1964, writes Leah Wright Rigueur, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard, in “The Loneliness of the Black Republican.” Rigueur says that historically, the rhetoric hasn’t been effective in convincing African Americans to join the GOP. “It assumes that black people aren’t smart enough or politically savvy enough to understand what’s in their best political interest,” she told me. “At best, it’s insulting. At worst, it’s bigoted.”

Focussed on the idea that more African Americans were conservative than they let on, the National Black Silent Majority Committee was formed in 1970. It “uncritically reiterated white Republican ideas,” writes Rigueur. The group charged that Great Society liberalism had sentenced black people to a “hopeless cycle of poverty and welfare and despair.” It opposed busing and counted Democrat-turned-Republican segregationist senator Strom Thurmond as a vocal backer. White Republicans supported the group, and the National Republican Congressional Committee financed its start-up and campaign costs, including several nationwide bus tours. But the group failed to make an impression beyond right-wing circles.

Blexit is the flashier, millennial, made-for-social-media edition. It uses Twitter instead of buses, Trump instead of Thurmond. Black attendees at the Globe told me it had struck a chord. Todd Harris, who’s 45, told me he used to be a Democrat but eventually “tired of all the victimisation in the black community.” Whenever something bad happened to someone, he said, “it’s because they’re black.” He thought that was a lousy excuse and found himself listening to Owens and black conservative activist David Harris Jr, who spoke at the rally. He was gobsmacked, “What they said – I was always afraid to think it.”

Before the event started, Jacob James Adegoke was at the front of the line to enter, jumping up and down and leading his compatriots in a “Trump! Trump! Trump!” chant. The 48-year-old Nigerian immigrant (who, he assured me, came to the country legally) told me he doesn’t believe Democrats care about black people. “It’s been a long time that I’ve been waiting for something like this,” he said.

Owens grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, in a low-income housing tower on the edge of downtown, what she remembers as “a pretty bad apartment.” She’s the third of four children and shared a room with her two sisters. Her younger sister, Brittany Davis, says that as a child, Owens constantly asked, “Why?” – like “a sponge that just wanted to be soaked for more knowledge.” She went all-in on whatever she did, from cheerleading to a fifth-grade production of “Annie,” and stood up for Davis and others when she felt something was unjust. “Whether she was wrong or right,” Davis recalls, “she was always fearless.”

When she was 11 or 12, her family moved in with her grandparents. “I had a pretty dysfunctional childhood,” Owens says. “I probably lived through more in my first eight years of life than most people live through in their entire lives.” She’s vague about the specifics and says she plans to reveal what she endured in an upcoming book.

Owens learned early on that she didn’t want to be a victim. During her senior year of high school, a group of boys left her a series of voice mails saying they would kill her because she was black and threatening to tar and feather her family. She told her principal, and because one of the boys was the son of then-Stamford mayor (and later Connecticut governor) Dannel Malloy, the story quickly attracted media attention. The NAACP got involved, and Owens had to leave school for six weeks to wait out the firestorm. Her family ultimately settled with the school district for USD37,500.

Owens, who struggled with anorexia for years afterward, had unwittingly – unwillingly – become a poster child for racial victimhood. “I think it made her have her eyes a little more open as far as being in control of who she is and her image,” Davis says. “She will never allow herself to be presented as someone that’s weak.”

After high school, she studied journalism at the University of Rhode Island but dropped out during her junior year because, she says, her loan was declined. Now, journalists are the target of much of her ire. At the Blexit rally, when speaker Ann Coulter asserted that reporters “have got to be killed for democracy to live,” Owens cheered from the side of the stage. In our hotel interview, she bashed the media repeatedly, including The Washington Post. As she went on, it got awkward. If The Post is an “anti-Trump publication” that’s “not interested in pursuing truth or trying to get to know Trump supporters,” why accept my interview request?

“I don’t care. I mean, you want to profile me, it’s fine, it doesn’t hurt me,” she says. In fact, all the coverage only boosts her profile. “The more you smear me, the more you help me.”

Owens has been called an “Uncle Tom” and even worse. The insults serve to underline her point, that her skin colour is “proprietary” to the left and deviation is not allowed. But they can get to her. “She comes across as throwing the hammer down nonstop,” says Brandon Tatum, who works with Owens at Turning Point. “But if you were ever to sit down with Candace in a more personal setting, she’s a very compassionate person, and she’s emotional. She takes this stuff seriously, and sometimes when people say stuff to her, it hurts her feelings.” She’s had to hire a bodyguard because of the constant threats.

And in reality, friends say, she is much more interested in hearing new perspectives than her hard-line public persona suggests. “While Candace may appear to some people as this irrational person, I can assure you, at least from my own personal conversations, that is far from the truth,” says her friend Shermichael Singleton, a black Republican political consultant. “She is someone who’s willing to grow, is amenable to learning things and amenable to testing out her ideas and challenging herself.”

Her critics are less forgiving. Carol Anderson, the author of “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” and professor of African-American studies at Emory University, sees Owens functioning as a novelty for the right wing, someone who insulates the Republican Party against charges of racism. “She just appears to be one of a small coterie of black folks circling around Trump,” Anderson says, “trying to put a black face onto white supremacy.”

Owens dismisses such criticism as “symptomatic of the entire education system, which in my opinion has become a plague of leftist dogma. Ad hominem attacks from professors won’t stop the Blexit movement”.

The story of Owens’ political awakening has become part of her viral lore. Until her mid-20s, she wasn’t especially political – she voted for the first time in last year’s midterm elections – but identified, in broad strokes, as a liberal. In 2016, after working at a private equity firm and running a lifestyle blog, she launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for a start-up called Social Autopsy, an anti-bullying company that promised to create “the first-ever search database that compiles and allows the public to easily access the digital footprint of individuals and companies.” To many people, it sounded like an unchecked way to dox – or publish private information about – anyone, not just trolls. (Owens had never heard of doxing.)

The day the Kickstarter went live, she got a call from Zoe Quinn, a target of the sexist online harassment campaign Gamergate. Quinn urged her to end the project. Owens believed that this – along with the influx of racist emails she received later that evening – was proof that Quinn was making up the harassment and was terrified that Social Autopsy’s technology would reveal her scheme. Owens told her side of the story to multiple outlets, including New York magazine and The Washington Post. The New York article pointed out the holes in her logic, essentially painting her as someone who was prone to conspiracy theories and didn’t understand how the Internet worked. “I was talking to all these journalists thinking that they were gonna run the story about this crazy girl who’s been faking her harassment, that they would want to crack this story,” she told me. “Instead, they’re all writing horrible things.” – Text and Photos by The Washington Post