NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—It’s 8:30 am on the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, and Candace Owens has taken the stage.
“I've never been a slave in this country,” Owens declared, after unleashing a signature screed against the Democratic Party and what she calls “a black new deal.” She also claimed the only thing Democrats cared about was the “politicking of fear” to gain the minority vote.
"America is not a racist country. The people that continue to tell us that have a vested interest in racism," she said to a cheering crowd.
By any account, Owens, an African-American conservative firebrand, stands out in the largely white, male crowd that frequents the annual gathering, a difference she highlights as a part of her political identity. Owens founded the Black-Exit (“Blexit”) movement to encourage African-Americans to support conservative values and spur—in her words—a “minority awakening”—a message she has amplified from her perch as the director of communications for Turning Point USA.
But many of the people she’s trying to recruit wince at her brash rhetoric, telling The Daily Beast her views did not reflect those of most conservative people of color.
“I don’t think she’s a good representative of the movement and of conservatism because I feel like a lot of the comments she makes—she doesn't think before she says what she says,” Satya Ath, an 18-year-old Liberty University student and Cambodian-American, said. “I just feel like like she has used her platform, her social media and stuff, to say things that are not appropriate at all.”
Robert Marshall, a 35-year-old African-American and D.C. local, said Owens’ remarks take away from the mission of minority conservatives.
“I think there is a difference between getting press and then actually really pushing a movement,” he said. “I think sometimes, the personality becomes bigger than the movement, and so it takes away from what you’re really trying to do.”
As an example, Marshall referenced an incident last month Owens made international headlines by tying Nazism to a positive form of patriotic nationalism during a trip to London to launch the British chapter of Turning Point USA. Owens attempted to clarify her remarks in a livestream on Twitter, but that didn’t stop three Turning Point university chapters to call for her to step down from the organization—a request she declined.
“That comment about Hitler and the Jews is completely outside of what we believe as conservatives. We support Israel and the Jews. I feel like her comments were very derogatory,” Ath said. “...just as a person, you shouldn’t be saying stuff like that.”
Emilio Avelar, a 22-year-old Latin-American student at Green River College, told The Daily Beast that he was a fan of Owens’ work but admitted some of her messaging made him uncomfortable.
“I think the whole ‘Blexit’ thing can go a little too far and almost touches on the fringes of identity politics, something that Turning Point tends to advocate against,” he said. “It encourages tribalism and for people to stick to their own cohort. We should all just come together as freedom-loving Americans.”
Rhaaghav Kanovia, an Indian-American college junior who is involved at the Turning Point chapter in Santa Clara University, insisted there was a difference between Owens—an individual—and the organization of Turning Point.
“I work for the organization, not the individual. An individual can have their own views which I personally might agree or disagree with, but I believe in the values of the organization,” he said. When Kanovia was asked how he felt about Owens personally, he said he did not want to comment.
Owens wasn’t without her fans and defenders at CPAC.
“She wants to empowers us. She tells us that we are not victims, we are victors, and we can do whatever we believe we can,” Jalen Johnson, an African-American Turning Point chapter president at University of West Georgia. “People interpreted her comments wrong... if you go back and listen to the commentary you will realize that the comments were misconstrued.”
“I think Candice Owens is great. She has been a very good face and representative for that younger group,” Parson Hicks, a 37-year-old black American woman said. “I think the core of what she was trying to say, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of your country… On that point, I do support her.”
Marshall, the DC native, however, saw Owens as a figure who was distracting from the movement and discouraging variety of thought among conservative minorities.
“There has been black conservatives that have been doing this for a long time, and when you take examples like [Owens] and make it the whole, to say ‘This is what black conservatism is,’ I think it’s kind of not diverse,” he said.