During an appearance last Friday at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the latest Democrat politician to don blackface, in her case with an exaggerated drawl rather than shoe polish. Before a predominantly black audience, Ocasio-Cortez declaimed, “This is what organizing looks liiike! This is what building power looks liiike! This is what changing the country loooks liiike!” As her speech progressed, the stereotypically southern and black affectation grew even more pronounced.
“Y’know, Reverend, you bring up a funny anecdooote,” she drawled. “I’m proud to be a bar-ten-derrr. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that! There’s nothing wrong with working retaaail, folding clothes for other people to buyyy! There is nothing wronnng with preparing the fooood that your neighbors will eat.” The incident quickly drew comparisons to Hillary Clinton’s infamous caricature of a black accent during a 2007 campaign stop in Selma, Alabama, when the then-candidate declared, “I don’t feeel no ways tiiiiired.”
Ocasio-Cortez blamed the jarring incident on her allegedly hardscrabble upbringing. She was merely “code-switching,” she insisted—that is, reverting from her polished public cadence to her authentic, personal accent. “As much as the right [sic] wants to distort & deflect, I am from the Bronx. I act & talk like it, *especially* when I’m fired up and especially when I’m home,” Ocasio-Cortez distorted and deflected.
CNN’s Don Lemon defended her excuse. “She’s from the Bronx. If you are from the Bronx, you have hung out with black people, and that is not the first time she has used that accent.”
In truth, and despite repeated claims to the contrary, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not grow up in the Bronx. And she ordinarily does not speak with a Bronx accent, as countless hours of her public speaking demonstrates. And even if she had grown up in the Bronx and did speak with a Bronx accent, the cartoonish drawl that AOC affected before the National Action Network is not how people in the Bronx actually speak.
By the age of five, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s family had left the Bronx and moved to Yorktown Heights, a ritzy suburb in northern Westchester. She attended the estimable Yorktown High School before attending Boston University, a private college in Massachusetts that costs over $70,000 per year. According to Westchester County land records, Alexandria returned to Yorktown Heights after college and lived with her mother and brother until 2016.
I can empathize with AOC’s upbringing. After my family left Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in my early years, I grew up in Bedford Hills, the less affluent, more ethnically diverse, also well-to-do town directly across the New Croton Reservoir from Yorktown Heights. The median household income in Yorktown Heights is $99,382; in Bedford Hills it’s $68,848. An estimated 0.99–2.7% of Yorktown Heights residents are black, and 82.5-90.98% are white. By comparison, an estimated 4.5% of Bedford Hills residents are black, and 54.9% are white. In neither town do residents tend to speak in the accent AOC affected onstage with Al Sharpton.
During the 2018 midterm campaign, Ocasio-Cortez pretended to have commuted to high school from the Bronx. Her campaign website insisted, “She ended up attending public school 40 minutes north in Yorktown, and much of her life was defined by the 40-minute commute between school and her family in the Bronx.” The tall tale fell apart when political observers noticed that students in New York are not permitted to commute from the city to their preferred public school upstate. Ocasio-Cortez eventually deleted the obvious lie.
Perhaps AOC picked up her spontaneous drawl on weekend visits to the Bronx. Here too, personal experience suggests otherwise. Each weekend as a teenager I traveled to the Bronx to shop for groceries and see friends. At no point did the day trips transform me into a black preacher.
In reality, Ocasio-Cortez simply adopted what she imagined to be the preferred vocal style of her audience at the National Action Network. She may not even have realized she was doing it. Politicians engage in such linguistic stunts all the time because, like actors, their profession requires that they develop a keen, even unconscious empathy.
A popular conspiracy theory holds that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not really a politician at all but rather an actress cast to play one on TV. Friday’s performance reinforces the conspiracists’ theories. Similarities abound between show business and politics. But while actors react to imaginary circumstances, politicians are supposed to live in reality.
If Ocasio-Cortez must “code-switch,” she ought to trade her charade for authenticity. In any case, she might at least put on a more convincing show.