Burgess Owens makes race central to his campaign in appeal to white conservative voters

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Burgess Owens, center right, former NFL player and now 4th Congressional District GOP nominee, attends a rally in support of police officers at City Hall in Salt Lake City in this June 20, 2020, file photo. Owens, has positioned himself as a law and order candidate and has made race a central theme of his campaign. He has been a severe critic of Black Lives Matter.

During her campaigns and throughout her time in office, former Utah Rep. Mia Love — who in 2014 was elected to become the first Black Republican woman in Congress — often resisted efforts to talk about race.

When first elected she said that her historic victory “had nothing to do with race.” And she often said that she’d never experienced racism in Utah, where fewer than 1.5% of residents are Black.

“Utahns have made a statement that they’re not interested in dividing Americans based on race or gender," she declared on CNN shortly after her election. Instead, she said, they just want to elect people “who are honest and who have integrity.”

Burgess Owens, this year’s Republican nominee to reclaim the 4th Congressional District seat Love narrowly lost in 2018, has taken a different approach. He’s centered his campaign on race and made his clearing of racial hurdles an explicit part of his origin story.

That strategy comes as the issue has become a flashpoint across the country amid months of demonstrations aimed at police brutality against people of color, and at a time when the Republican Party is grappling with its failure to appeal to minority voters over the past few decades.

But Baodong Liu, a University of Utah professor who studies race and politics, said Owens' message on race — which has largely disregarded the notion that Blacks or other minorities in modern America face discrimination or any special challenges because of the color of their skin — isn’t targeted at the independent and minority Utahns he’ll likely need to win the Nov. 3 election.

“Owens," Liu said, “is running as a candidate primarily appealing to white voters and Trump voters.”

His approach of emphasizing his race and the story of his great-great-grandfather overcoming slavery to become a prosperous entrepreneur is a “powerful message” about self-reliance and the American dream that “proved to be successful in the primary” among those voters, Liu said.

But to win the general election, “he probably needs to position himself in order to get some minority voters to support him," too.

That’s particularly important, Liu said, since this year’s race between Owens and his Democratic opponent, first-term Rep. Ben McAdams, is expected to be among the most competitive in the nation. Handicappers at the Cook Political Report say the race is a toss-up, and recent polling has indicated it would be close.

“If you are a newcomer, you need to maximize your chance by going to neighborhoods that may chip away from McAdams,” Liu said. “And I think that’s the reason why minority voters are especially important."

The question for Owens in the election’s final days, Liu said, is “how to design a coherent message of not only being a law and order candidate but also a candidate with sympathy and empathy for the people who have suffered” disproportionately from COVID-19.

So far, Liu said, he hasn’t seen Owens successfully push that message through.

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, agreed with Liu’s analysis. And he said that while Owens' “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative tends to work well among Republican voters, it may not be enough for him to build the broad coalition he’ll need to win.

“He’s taking this view that it’s really sort of an individual’s responsibility” to overcome racism," he said. “And I think in some ways that’s going to be a tougher sell for people in the district who are not in the majority because I think their experience is going to be, look, we need to address this issue.”

Owens declined a request for an interview, but his campaign released a statement saying the candidate’s background is “uniquely American" and that his message of “faith, family and education is shaped by his experiences.”

The Owens campaign said it has worked extensively within the Polynesian community and has held roundtables and other events in the district to discuss ways to ease racial tensions and help facilitate conversations between community members and law enforcement.

“The campaign has aggressively worked to earn the vote of every voter in the district regardless of their race,” Jesse Ranney, Owens' campaign spokesman, said in an email.

4th Congressional District Republican candidate Burgess Owens, right and Democratic Utah Congressman Ben McAdams bump elbows following a debate on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (Kristin Murphy/ Deseret News, via AP, Pool)

Views on race

During an appearance this summer at the Republican National Convention, Owens' 3½-minute prime time speech focused on the story of his great-great-grandfather, Silas Burgess, who he said came to the United States “in the belly of a slave ship” and was sold on an auction block at 8 years old but went on to become a successful entrepreneur.

Owens, a former professional football player and a frequent commentator on Fox News, noted that racism was prevalent in his Southern upbringing so many decades later, as well. He was a child during the era of Jim Crow, when the Ku Klux Klan was a constant threat.

But Owens said he was taught that “anything is possible in America,” and he went on to tell of how he’d overcome his own obstacles, first to become a football champion and then to take on a “rewarding career” at WordPerfect.

Owens harked back to his childhood and family history at Monday’s first and only 4th Congressional District debate as well, a forum that also offered voters a chance to see firsthand the vastly different conceptions of race each candidate holds related to the Black Lives Matter movement and systemic racism.

In his remarks, Owens characterized Black Lives Matter as divisive and said its members are “against capitalism, against the nuclear family and they’re against God.” And he said the idea that the United States is systemically racist is “totally false.”

“We’ve come to a point now where our country looks at each other better from the inside out than the outside in than any other country in the history of mankind,” he said. “We need to be proud of that and we need to start off by teaching our history so white Americans do not feel they have to apologize for being white and Black Americans don’t feel they have to be angry because they’re Black.”

McAdams also pointed to “incredible” racial progress that he said has worked to ensure everyone feels “respected and dignified.” But while he didn’t go so far as to say that systemic racism is embedded within the folds of the United States, he did say there’s a need to do more to heal racial tensions.

“I hear from people across our community who feel that doors aren’t open to them, that as hard as they may try to get ahead, they’re not afforded the same opportunities,” McAdams said. “So I look internally. What can I do to contribute to healing the divisions that exist in our country, to bringing us together and to get to the point that every American feels respected and valued? And I think we have more progress we can make.”

Black Lives Matter Utah leader Lex Scott, in responding to Owens' comments about the organization, said her group has endorsed McAdams and is actively encouraging its members to vote against Owens.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Burgess Owens is a sellout who is filled with self-hatred and internalized racism,” she said in an interview. “He actively speaks against his race so that he can gain the vote of racists who enjoy hearing Black people bash other Black people.”

A vote for Owens, she said, “is a vote against the Black community.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Lex Scott from Black Lives Matter Utah, leads chant as counterprotesters stand across the street at Cottonwood Heights police station on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. The group has endorsed Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams in the 4th Congressional District race.

Policy views

While Owens has often taken to Twitter to weigh in on issues of cultural import — like the time he criticized the NFL for playing a song widely known as the “Black National Anthem” before its games — his views on race would also likely influence his policy positions, if elected to Congress.

“There is no ‘black national anthem,’" he tweeted then. “Why does it feel like the country is trying to segregate again sometimes?”

During a conversation on the Second Amendment this summer with Utah Gun Exchange owner Sam Robinson, Owens said he doesn’t support gun-free zones in public or private areas and is similarly opposed to bans on firearm accessories. And he indicated that at least some of his views on gun rights are rooted in the country’s racial history.

During the show, he recounted the promise President Abraham Lincoln made to give former slaves 40 acres and a mule, in part by redistributing private property formerly owned by Confederate landowners. Historians say the move would have vastly changed the course of American race relations, but it wasn’t to be. After the president was assassinated, Andrew Johnson, his successor, overturned the order in the fall of 1865 and the land was largely returned to its original owners.

“The first thing Andrew Johnson did is he had the Army go down and take away people’s guns,” Owens said on the show. “So he took away the guns of those Black former slaves and then they took away their property.”

There was a segment of Black Americans who he said held onto their land — but only “because they held onto their guns.” The nonprofit BlackPast estimated that there were about 2,000 freed slaves who retained their landholdings.

Owens referenced this story again later to note his opposition to gun registration policies, asserting that the government was able to take people’s firearms because “they knew where they had them.”

Had their weapons not been taken away, he said the Black community would have been “allowed to thrive, build their businesses, build their families, build respect within themselves, produce and give to the rest of the country.” As a result, he argued, “these issues we’re having today would not be half the issues” they are.

At the time Black Americans were promised 40 acres and a mule in the late 1800s, the proposal was seen as a way of making reparations to the slaves who had helped build the nascent country’s wealth.

But Owens has been among the vocal opponents of modern-day reparations, an idea popularized in Ta-Nehisi Coates' landmark 2014 essay “The Case For Reparations,” which identifies the lasting impacts of slavery and discrimination and calls for an exploration of reparations to the ancestors of those “on whose labor and exclusion the country was built.”

Coates argued that Black Americans have been locked out of the opportunity for wealth building through homeownership because of redlining practices. The income gap between Black and white households was about the same as it was in 1970, he noted, and Pew Research Center data estimated in 2011 that the latter were worth roughly 20 times as much as the former. More recent data from 2016 found the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family.

Owens, in a video dated shortly before he announced his run for Congress last November, pushes back on the idea that Black Americans are owed anything for the hundreds of years of slavery their ancestors endured.

“Because great-great-grandpa Silas was once a slave, so called progressives want to give me money,” he said in a video produced by the conservative nonprofit media company Prager University. “Never mind that, like him, I’m an entrepreneur who received an excellent education, built businesses, raised a remarkable family and — unlike most white Americans — earned a Super Bowl ring. Because of work I’ve never done, strifes I’ve never had, under whip I’ve never known, these progressives want to give me money I’ve never earned.”

At the “core” of the reparations movement, he said, “is a distorted and demeaning view of Blacks and whites.”

“It grants superiority to the white race, treating them as an oppressive people too powerful for Black Americans to overcome,” Owens continued. “It brands Blacks as hapless victims, devoid of the ability which every other culture possesses to assimilate and to progress.”

The call for reparations, he said, also minimizes 150 years of social, legal and economic progress obtained by “millions of American minorities” and the “sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of white Americans and a Republican president who gave their lives to eradicate slavery.”

His great-great-grandfather, Owens argued, would have seen that loss as “payment in full.”

“Why should white Americans — my neighbors, friends and fellow citizens — owe me anything?” he said. "If Grandpa Silas were here, I’m certain his message to everyone, whether Black or white, would simply be this: ‘Good character cannot be bought by bribery.’”

If elected, Owens, who has testified in Congress against reparations, would likely vote against legislation sponsored by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas that would establish a commission to study the consequences and impacts of slavery and make recommendations for reparations.

As the election between McAdams and Owens approaches, Liu said only time will tell whether Owens' approach to race and its centrality in his campaign will prove more successful than Love’s efforts to “downplay” it.

“One may say it is an innovative approach,” he said of Owens. “It proved to be successful in the primary. But to win the general election, you have to think about what votes do you have to win to get you to the finish line."

And while Love, now a CNN commentator who has endorsed Owens, said it’s unlikely his race would be important to voters in Utah, she added that she does believe he’d face challenges if elected among national-level Democrats who do “not like to see a Black Republican in office.”

“When you’ve got Black people talking about Black communities and why it’s important for us to be compassionate to all people, that’s not what they would like for Republicans to believe," she said in an interview. “They don’t want Republicans to believe people feel this way. That’s a big issue for them. It was a problem when I was elected to Congress because they like to have this narrative. And when you have Black Republicans in Congress, that really messes up their narrative.”

Return to Story