Like Pete Buttigieg, I’ve been the guy dispatched by a more senior television producer to get a camera crew into a place where we are unwelcome. Investigative journalist Renee Ferguson told The Washington Post’s Robert Samuels the story of how the current South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential upstart, then her collegian intern and the only white person on her otherwise all-black crew, turned out to be the only person allowed admission into a building’s basement. He would go on to film what would become Emmy-winning undercover footage of a sex offender working in a day care.
Ferguson recalled that she later told a confused Buttigieg that he had just experienced white privilege. “ ‘I couldn’t get in, but you could,’ ” Samuels quotes her as recounting to the future presidential candidate. “ ‘Think about how many times in your life that you’ve just been able to walk through doors, and the rest of us got turned away.’ ”
Her point is valid, but I have something to add. I’ve been let or even welcomed into many places where I then received less-than-equal treatment from some people solely because I’m black. (Stores. Restaurants. the University of Pennsylvania. Just to name a few examples.) White privilege doesn’t just get you in the door. Like Buttigieg during that undercover shoot, it lets you stay and go about your business while being taken seriously all the while.
That is why I wonder how many stars Buttigieg thanks each night as he enjoys not merely an operating presidential campaign, but an increasingly viable one. This is despite the fact that he cannot, for all his earnest efforts, attract a lick of black support from damn near anywhere. It is such an epidemic problem for him that it has become fodder for The Onion: “Pete Buttigieg Admits Only Recently Realizing Black People Can Vote,” read a December headline ridiculing him after he’d said aloud that he had been “slow to realize” that schools in his native South Bend were still segregated.
Despite all this, Buttigieg is not only still considered as a serious Democratic contender, but actually also seems to be gaining momentum with the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary coming up less than two months from now. That is not only getting in the door, but also being allowed to stay there.
So many candidates are judged on the basis of whether they’re “electable” — a strange term that seems to tell us as much about the speaker as the subject. But Pete has passed that test (or never really even faced it) despite the fact that he can’t convince the party’s most loyal voters that he is the best choice to face the now-impeached President Trump.
This is all despite running at a time when the party’s most loyal constituency has virtually frozen out candidates who look like them. One black candidate has already dropped out and not one nonwhite hopeful has ever enjoyed anything close to a majority of black support. Even Julián Castro, consistent with his social-justice plans and messaging, has had trouble staying in the race. Six of the seven Democratic primary debaters Thursday night in Los Angeles will be white, with Andrew Yang being the sole exception.
I won’t speak for everyone, but it seems clear that African Americans do not care as much as one might expect about the racial-justice records of these Democratic hopefuls. “Can she or he defeat Trump?” is a primary concern, right next to a familiarity with the candidate in question. Perhaps that is why former Vice President Joe Biden — the author of the ruinous 1994 crime bill who proudly said in August of black voters, “I think they know me” — has enjoyed a steady and massive lead since entering the race. But name recognition is only part of it. It matters that the candidates also demonstrate a fluency with black communities and concerns.
That Buttigieg still has press being published about his issues with the black electorate, that he is still polling so poorly with them — all of that shouldn’t just sound an alarm for a Democrat who wants to be president. This close to Iowa, it should ring like a death knell. The person hoping to win this primary contest will need a ton of black voters to do it.
That is why it may seem so curious that Buttigieg is instead showing new signs of strength as the primary’s first two contests draw closer. This is despite a recent New York Times report quoting white Iowa voters saying they feel a responsibility to caucus for a candidate who can appeal to those who aren’t white, supposedly understanding the value of a candidate who can engage the Democrats’ diverse base. One told The New York Times earlier this week, “We want someone who the nation will get behind and support — everyone, not just the white Iowans.” Well, Buttigieg took the lead last month in Iowa, where he is still holding off a rising Bernie Sanders.
No Democratic candidate will win without the black vote. Yet the other day, we saw Buttigieg being, quite literally, wined and dined in a Napa cave by millionaires. Perhaps it is his friendliness with big business that convinces them that he is their best investment, but in the process, they ignore the voice of black voters. Or, more to the point, they presume they will all fall in line if and when Buttigieg were to become the nominee and face Trump in a general election.
We are likely to see the Republican-controlled Senate excuse the impeached president’s offenses and risk him interfering in another presidential contest. Should an election actually happen and Buttigieg was Trump’s opponent, it is likely that black voters would support him at significantly higher levels than the current zero. Perhaps somewhere in the 95+% range. This is an election to defeat a white-nationalist incumbent, and people who aren’t white don’t regularly get a pure choice in elections. Most of the time, they confront a choice: Select the least-bad white candidate available, the person who finds themselves least capable of insulting their heritage or most able to offer some They vote not for who they truly want, but for who they must.
I won’t determine whether or not black people can do better than Buttigieg, though his aversion to single-payer health care and his coziness to big money in politics don’t seem to be good things for communities of color. Similarly, I can’t assess on my own whether he has made a genuine effort to understand what is so often labeled, with limiting language, as the “black experience.”
Voters should read his ambitious Douglass Plan for themselves. Journalists have written about his record in South Bend with more nuance than folks might have expected; people should learn about his controversial housing program and his handling of the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer this year. They can even now watch The Root’s Michael Harriot talk to the candidate he branded a “lying MF.” The same writer who blistered Buttigieg in a November essay for a 2011 remark about schools in lower-income communities has sat down with him both on the phone and in person.
Buttigieg is making an effort, but that isn’t what matters. Whether he is a better person isn’t terribly interesting now. What is he learning, and is he convincing any black voters that what he is learning will help him be a better president for them?
I think that it would help because any public officials would respond better to the folks most responsible for putting them in office. It’s simply human nature. Either way, though, it is remarkable to observe how legitimized Buttigieg has become, despite having had a consistent and gaping hole in his overall resumé for the nomination. But like that door he was able to not only pass through but also stay inside as a television station intern, Buttigieg and other white candidates like him receive infinite chances to “get to know” the black voters they’ll truly need later.
Imagine if black candidates got the same kind of time and leeway to “get to know” their white constituents. Some of them might get through the door. How long do you think they would be allowed to stay there? Paging Kamala Harris.