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Pete Buttigieg’s Antiracist Education

Still struggling to earn the support of black voters, the mayor talked to Rolling Stone about what he is learning from his mistakes

Pete Buttigieg, David Gross. Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, takes questions from students along with real estate developer David Gross, right, as they tour Vetcor90, a co-working space and STEM center created by the late Nipsey Hussle, in Los AngelesElection 2020 Buttigieg, Los Angeles, USA - 25 Jul 2019

Pete Buttigieg, David Gross. Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, takes questions from students along with real estate developer David Gross, right, as they tour Vetcor90, a co-working space and STEM center created by the late Nipsey Hussle, in Los Angeles Election 2020 Buttigieg, Los Angeles, USA - 25 Jul 2019

Damian Dovarganes/AP/Shutterstoc

“Oh, fuck,” Pete Buttigieg says, as his body deflates. When I tell him the news, it looks for a moment as though his head might hit the table. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana is sitting opposite from me in one of those WeWork offices that we have just enough room for the three people it currently contains. Yes, his jacket is off and his sleeves are rolled up, as usual. So are mine; either someone forgot to turn on the A/C or this report has my blood running hot.

Amidst the preparations for a busy day of campaigning in Los Angeles — which included a visit to Vector90, a co-working space co-founded by the late rapper and philanthropist Nipsey Hussle — Buttigieg hadn’t heard about Attorney General William Barr announcing his plans just an hour or two beforehand that he plans to resume federal executions in December. The 16-year pause in the federal death penalty was going to end. Presidential candidates, they’re just like you when they get the crappy Trump news first thing in the morning. On the Thursday before the second slate of Democratic primary debates in Detroit, neither the mayor nor I had much of an appetite for the pastries sitting between us.

Buttigieg takes a moment to collect himself. I know he opposes the death penalty, so to hear him state that he’s called for a Constitutional amendment to end it is expected. But then, the mayor brings the Barr news back to the conversation that we had been having up to that point — one that both his polls and his community are begging him to have, and one that he seems increasingly eager to jump into. 

The death penalty is “something I would object to anyway,” Buttigieg tells me, “but it’s another example of where the racial inequality can’t be denied.” 

I HAD 15 MINUTES with the South Bend mayor that I stretched into about 20, and I wanted to spend virtually every one of them speaking with him about race and racism in America. His campaign had published its Douglass Plan, an intricately woven set of proposals for improving black life and eliminating structural racism, about two weeks prior. As I wrote in June, Buttigieg’s comprehensive 18-page prescription for black uplift offers antiracist policy prescriptions ranging from Health Equity Zones to entrepreneurship funds to a new public trust to address long-entrenched housing disparities. 

But that arrived as Buttigieg’s city was still stewing over the shooting death of Eric Logan, a black man, at the hands of a white cop, and as he continued to receive zero percent support in national polls from African Americans. Days after we spoke, Quinnipiac released another one continuing that trend. This is a problem that would be solved by his being nominated against Donald Trump, where he surely would enjoy a great deal of black support. Problem is, he has to get there first.

Buttigieg’s upstart candidacy has been the talk of the country for months now, and he outpaced his dozens of competitors in the second quarter with nearly $25 million raised. But it is doubtful any of the hype or funding will mean much if he can’t earn the support, and trust, of the most loyal Democratic voting bloc. Black people, though we certainly do not vote monolithically, have gained enough power to effectively have veto power over who the party’s nominee will be.

He knows that, so I don’t bother asking. (Though his CNN debate moderator did, and we’ll get to that.) Instead, I wanted to know more about the origins of the Douglass Plan, the name of which was reportedly authorized by the abolitionist’s descendants after Buttigieg sent them a personal letter. Why release a comprehensive plan that seems to attempt to solve systemic racism all at once, rather than introduce piecemeal plans throughout the campaign like most campaigns do?

“I found that especially when it comes to racial inequality, every time we tug on a thread, we find that it ties to something bigger,” Buttigieg says. “Whenever we’re talking about race and policing back home,by the end we’re also having a conversation about economic disempowerment. What it compels you to realize is that, you know, systemic racism is this entire complex of things that are all connected. And we’ve gotta talk about, and act on, all of these pieces at once.”

The Douglass Plan is hardly the first ambitious reform Buttigieg has suggested. He has offered massive changes that haven’t gotten as much press as the Bernie Sanders Revolution, per se, but would have potentially as significant an effect on how the government does its business. The Rhodes Scholar and military veteran has talked openly of scrapping the filibuster, the Electoral College, and revolutionizing the Supreme Court. The death of the filibuster would arguably be necessary in any administration for a Douglass Plan to be fully implemented.

However, the Plan also offered the chance for Buttigieg to communicate to voters his understanding of America’s fundamental dilemma. “Any one of these policies could stand alone. I mean, we have debates about housing. We have debates about employment. We have debates about policing, right? All of these are still, on some level, dealing with symptoms, where the root cause is racism, right?”

And to that extent, what about reparations? I told Buttigieg I considered the Douglass Plan an attempt at reparative policy, a legislative retribution for the wrongs that have been done in the past using the government as a conduit. Buttigieg saw the metaphor slightly differently.

“It’s like you’ve got a deficit, and you’ve got a debt. Until you turn the deficit into a surplus, the debt’s never gonna shrink. This is changing the direction,” the mayor said. “Having a plus sign versus a minus sign on how we’re chipping away at this inequity. And the inequity is the debt.”

“So philosophically, reparations is like, ‘All right, let’s just pay off the debt.’ And what we’re talking about here, which I think does not substitute for the reparations conversation, but definitely overlaps it, right?”

I see the overdue bill that America owes to black folks accruing much like that the national debt did on that ticker that still runs in midtown Manhattan — endlessly and at the speed of light. So I see where Buttigieg is coming from: paying a concrete amount for reparations has always seemed to be a good deal for the oppressor because it’s a one-time payment. Buttigieg is talking about chipping away at things that certainly involve money, but also go beyond it. 

It is something that I’ve discussed amongst my family and black friends and peers. Then and hours later at Vector90, Buttigieg suggests that he wants another audience for his message.

BUTTIGIEG IS DISPENSING the best advice he can, but he is clearly learning as much from these black and Hispanic kids as he is trying to help. The students, all in town from around the country with the STEM education group dream hustle code, sit in the middle of Vector90’s large community space in South Los Angeles, wide open and wooden from floor to ceiling. Real estate investor David Gross, who partnered with Nipsey to launch the space in March of last year, stands off to the side, listening. The children tell him about their experiences in school, ranging from being bullied for their Mexican heritage to feeling overly disciplined due to being black. Buttigieg, never once relating his experiences as a gay man to what they are going through, does his best to offer them comfort first and advice second.

He saves his anger for when he faces the press. When he steps to the side to face a number of us with our tape recorders, mics, and cameras pointed at him, I think I see the same “Oh, fuck” look on Buttigieg’s face that I saw earlier that morning. But while his face regains its composure, it is clear from his tone of voice listening to several teenagers tell him how racism in America is currently damaging their lives has only pissed him off.

“It is a reminder how racism is not a black problem, it is a white problem, and that white America needs to be having a conversation about what kind of atmosphere is being created,” he said. He pauses to add that while he was mad, it was encouraging that he’d heard some solutions to these “white problems.” 

Earlier, I’d asked Buttigieg about the unique responsibility white politicians, in particular, have to address this issue — especially in light of the statement former Vice President Joe Biden had made to Bloomberg News,  when asked about whether he’d come up with his own agenda to address black community concerns: “I’ve had a black agenda, ’cause that’s why I ran for Senate, uh, in the first place.” (That was in 1972, three years before he made remarks on busing and race in America that had him sounding like a segregationist.) Biden added to Bloomberg that “the black agenda is America’s agenda.”

While Buttigieg didn’t bite when asked about Biden’s remarks, he did have one criticism. “The part that’s false is, is the kind of rising tide lifts all boats idea, right? That, ‘Look, if we deal with inequality, then, then, the, the, the needs of black Americans, right? Because we’re equal.’We’re sort of trying it. You could argue how race-neutral our policies are. But they’re more race-neutral than they used to be, and still the [racial inequality] deficit grows.”

Conversely, Buttigieg argues for a different model of mutual beneficiality. “If you fix the black wealth gap, for example, a lot of the problems, more generally, are less intractable,” he says. “It is true that if we speak to the concerns of black America, we are making America as a whole better off. White Americans are better off in a world where you’ve tackled this.”

That is a tough lesson to teach in Trumpworld, where the president rarely misses an opportunity to exploit African Americans and other racial minorities for political gain, to say nothing of imprisoning migrants for the sake of his personal cruelty. Trump’s attack on the “Squad,” in particular, Buttigieg said, “perfectly illustrates the trap of the Trump presidency. He does a thing that requires a response, and you just morally have to respond to it. Part of what the President did is that he said this racist thing, triggered a debate, that was necessary, about why that was racist.”

“But,” Buttigieg notes, “it means we talked very little about an extremely important thing that happened that week, which was the vote to pass the minimum wage [increase to $15 per hour for tipped workers] in the House. One of the most important those four Congresswomen, actually, had been working on. 

“There’s now gonna be very little penalty for the Senate killing the minimum wage measure,” Buttigieg added, “because a lot of people don’t know it got passed. It’s a great example of a ‘kitchen table’ issue, and while, in the political internal debate, ‘kitchen table’ usually codes as white — here’s a ‘kitchen table’ issues that is especially, disproportionately, for black and brown kitchen tables in this country.”

How does he confront that, then, as a candidate? “It goes to this bigger challenge, where the President who mastered white identity politics is able to consume attention, including from detractors, in a way that we can’t defeat by ignoring him, because you cannot ignore a nakedly racist statement,” he said. “That encapsulates the challenge of this whole campaign season, which will be to face the things that need to be confronted, and yet not be talking more about him than we’re talking about you, talking about American life, and how it would be made better by putting us in power.”

BUTTIGIEG HAS NOT figured this all out, of course. He still has a lot to learn, and a community in South Bend that has people wary of his handling of the aftermath of Logan’s shooting. And during the debate, CNN moderator Don Lemon asked him this ridiculous question:

“Mayor Buttigieg, you have been criticized for your handling of racial issues in your home city of South Bend, from diversity in the police force to housing policy. Given your record, how can you convince African-Americans that you should be the Democratic nominee?” 

I’m not here to defend Buttigieg, whose past rhetoric on race I have criticized. But putting him on the spot as if it’s a cable news interview rather than a debate doesn’t serve the voters. Still, the mayor had an opportunity and fumbled it. 

He could have started by saying, “My Douglass Plan does…” Instead, he said, “As an urban mayor serving a diverse community, the racial divide lives within me,” as if the racial divide were a thing at all. You could almost see him suppress a bit of vomit as he finished the sentence. The rest of the answer was a missed opportunity, bringing up the Logan shooting unprovoked. By the time he did get to the specifics of his Plan, Lemon was interrupting him to move on to the next contestant.

So what has the mayor learned from whatever evolution that he feels that he may have made on issues related to race and racism, I wondered — and from his mistakes? 

Buttigieg is a war veteran, but still quite young — and his considerable political talent suggests he is on the cusp of a long political career, no matter how this presidential race turns out. But he is running for president now, and we need to assess where he is on this issue, especially if he hopes to take on a white-nationalist incumbent in the general election.

The Buttigieg demanding white people take an active role in the deconstruction of systemic racism may still be the same Buttigieg who in March, told KQED during an interview that Trump voters are “just human beings making choices on their situations, sometimes their biases and we need to talk through them,” as if they bore no responsibility for their actions. That is the kind of stuff that will erode the goodwill and trust from black voters he will need to be successful. He has been coming around now, months before any actual caucuses or primaries, and has since proposed the single largest piece of antiracist policy that any candidate has put forth. It is a credit to him that he is trying to get it at 37, and not four decades later. 

Buttigieg acknowledges that he has a way to go still in this regard, whether that means earning votes in a Democratic presidential primary or doing the business of governance in South Bend.

“I guess the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that good intentions are not enough,” he said, with a solemn smile. “Just ’cause I seek to heal, and move beyond racism, and act accordingly, doesn’t mean, A) people are gonna trust me even — or especially — if I’m tellin’ the truth. And B) that we’re gonna get the results we’re after. And we’ve gotta own that.”

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