Prescriptions for an America Sick With Racism
Pete Buttigieg got one thing wrong when he responded to the bigot on the Fourth of July. Later, the fact checkers would note that when he said that “a black person is four times as likely as a white person to be incarcerated for the exact same crime is evidence of systemic racism,” he fumbled the data from a 2013 ACLU study. But the mayor got the big picture right when responding to Dave Begley, a white, conservative blogger, at that July 4 Iowa event. Volunteering his solution for the friction between police and black residents of South Bend, Indiana, Begley told Buttigieg, “Just tell the black people of South Bend to stop committing crime and doing drugs.” The mayor, to his credit, responded as he should have.
“Sir, I think racism is not going to help us get out of this drama,” Buttigieg said. He later added that “racism makes it harder for good police officers to do their job, too. It is a smear on law enforcement.” It was a verbal preview of the anti-racist spirit animating his Douglass Plan, released at last in full detail on Thursday. Though not necessarily the first or even necessarily the most effective set of these measures yet to be released, by submitting to the public the most concentrated set of detailed proposals aimed at improving black American lives, Buttigieg has made it ridiculous for any candidate look afraid to draw up race-based policy. And he has made it unacceptable for the rest of the Democratic field to put forth anything less than what he has done.
Billed as “a comprehensive and intentional dismantling of racist structures and systems combined with an equally intentional and affirmative investment of unprecedented scale in the freedom and self-determination of Black Americans,” the set of Buttigieg proposals reads like a nearly complete set of reparative policies without the actual reparations checks.
Over the course of 18 pages, the policy document covers issues including voting rights, health policy, education, criminal justice reform, housing, and employment. It addresses racial disparities as specific and divergent as lead poisoning, black maternal death in childbirth, and lack of instruction about African American history in schools. While a bit of the list glances by certain issues with airy, promissory language, the Douglass Plan also offers many of the specifics that skeptics and critics (including myself) had been demanding.
What may matter more in the short term, both for Buttigieg’s prospects and for black electorates hoping to be served well by these candidates, is that these proposals further encourage this primary and its contenders to continue being unafraid of putting forth anti-racist policy. Everything else, as American University scholar Ibram Kendi wrote in December, is racist policy. This is something we need to come to grips with. Since this nation is rooted in bigotries of various types and if left undeterred, will sustain them, a policy that isn’t in service of tearing down that system is helping to maintain it. It may sound absolutist, but it also is common sense.
“All policies, ideas and people are either being racist or anti-racist. Racist policies yield racial inequity; antiracist policies yield racial equity,” Kendi wrote in the Guardian last December. “Racist ideas suggest racial hierarchy, antiracist ideas suggest racial equality. A racist is supporting racist policy or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is supporting antiracist policy or expressing an antiracist idea. A racist or antiracist is not who we are, but what we are doing in the moment.”
We have a desperate need for strong proposals that don’t merely placate black voters but challenge white ones. Same goes for rhetoric. In that respect, many white candidates have made significant strides. Sanders, who notoriously had trouble connecting with black voters in 2016 with his rhetoric, has done more this time around both in terms of his policy proposals, and though he can certainly do more with his outreach, the change is noticeable. (His interview with Hill is something you should watch in full.)
New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand may be polling at near zero nationwide, but she continues to bring value to the primary field with moments like her campaign stop Thursday in Youngstown, Ohio, where she offered about a concise and effective definition of “white privilege” when a woman holding a baby asked her how Democrats can talk about such things when people like her are struggling. She responded that while she understood that “families in this community are suffering deeply,” that isn’t what white privilege is about.
Gillibrand then outlined, in stark terms, racial disparities that are common knowledge to anyone who lives as a black person in America: health care, housing, employment. “So institutional racism is real,” the senator added. “It doesn’t take away your pain or suffering. It’s just a different issue. Your suffering is just as important as a black or brown person’s suffering. But to fix the problems that are happening in the black community, you need far more transformational efforts that are targeted for real racism that exists every day.”
Today in Youngstown, OH, a woman asked: "This is an area that, across all demographics, has been depressed because of the loss of industry and the opioid crisis. What do you have to say to people in this area about so-called white privilege?"
Here's what I answered: pic.twitter.com/M8Ld5yjVE6
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) July 12, 2019
We are not going to end systemic racism by talking down conservative bloggers and schooling anxious white women from northeast Ohio, but these moments are good — not just for the rest of the people in the crowd and all those who saw the videos, but the candidates themselves. As meaningful as it is to have a series of anti-racist proposals geared towards black voters, aiming for our attention and our votes, this is not a problem that we can solve because we did not create it. White people need to fix what is inherently a white problem, and that includes white politicians.
Buttigieg, upon his introduction to the American public, did not look like he would be part of the solution. Even as his star rose meteorically, his rhetoric on race and racism in the context of the Trump moment sank him with black voters. In a January profile, Buttigieg insisted “Donald Trump got elected because, in his twisted way, he pointed out the huge troubles in our economy and our democracy,” and a couple months later, he mocked coastal voters and insisted upon empathy for Trump supporters, people who continue to excuse his racism. Visuals of Buttigieg rallies were noted for their monochromatic audiences, even in diverse cities.
The South Bend mayor did have a plan to address this. He would be one of four Democratic presidential contenders to address BET’s Black Economic Alliance Forum on Saturday, June 15. In advance of that event, he would have written an op-ed teasing his forthcoming Douglass Plan for Black America — named in honor of the celebrated abolitionist and reformer Frederick — and pundits and voters alike will declare that he “has a plan,” even if absolutely no one will know any of its specifics. But then, around 3 am local time on Sunday, June 16, one of the white cops in Buttigieg’s town shot a black man to death.
The boyish-looking war veteran and Rhodes Scholar was being projected as the next prodigious Democratic political talent, but he was now facing a very real crisis — and it happened to be one that exposed his most conspicuous political weakness. The furor and debate over Buttigieg’s reaction to the shooting death of Eric Logan will rage on, as local and national coverage could lead us to varying conclusions of how competent a leader the mayor proved to be in the wake of the tragedy. The point, however, is that he could and should have done more to prevent it in the first place.
Even Buttigieg seemed to recognize that when moderator Rachel Maddow asked him during the June 27 debate in Miami about why, over the course of two terms in office, his police force was still 94% white when his town’s population was more than a quarter black. “Because I couldn’t get it done,” he said, adding that he was “determined to bring about a day when a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle, when they see a police officer approaching, feels the same thing. Not of fear, but of safety. I am going to bring about that very thing.”
The Douglass Plan reads like he is trying to will that reality into being. After near radio silence from his campaign as far as policy dealing specifically with African Americans, this reads as though a President Pete would be trying to make up for the generational harms of slavery all by himself. I don’t say that to discourage him from trying. As the summary states, “America cannot simply replace centuries of racism with non-racist policy; it must intentionally mitigate the gaps that those centuries of policy created.”
Buttigieg appears to have learned quite a bit in the short time between the period when he was ascribing Trump’s victory to the red herring of economic anxiety and now. Perhaps he had an Ibram Kendi book land in his hands. Or perhaps he realized, as any Democratic candidate should, that there is no discernible path to the presidency without a strong African American following. Combine the Logan shooting with the appeal of competitors such as former vice president Joe Biden and senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and it wasn’t surprising that Buttigieg was polling at zero with black voters nationwide, per an early July CNN survey. What better time to release the full details of his Douglass Plan, and let them know precisely what a Buttigieg presidency would do for black Americans?
It turns out it’s precisely a lot. Even still, his proposals are worth comparing to what some of his opponents have already put forward.
The Plan’s Walker-Lewis Entrepreneurship Fund — yes, named for legendary black millionaires Madam C.J. Walker and Reginald Lewis — “aims to triple the number of entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds within 10 years.” It spends $3 billion more than the Warren plan announced in June and sets a higher goal for jobs (3 million vs. 1.1 million). However, the Douglass Plan only sets aside half of the $50 billion for historically black colleges and universities that Warren proposed in April and a fraction of the $3 billion Julián Castro pledged. Buttigieg’s tuition-free proposals for public college pale when measured next to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ promise that “within six months, student loan debt will be canceled for 45 million Americans.”
The mayor wants a “21st Century Voting Rights Act,” but doesn’t outline how he would possibly get something like that passed. Harris’s Reproductive Justice Act has put forth a model for getting such legislation realized — using preclearance in states known to have histories of discrimination pertaining to that law — and making it effective.
Those moments when Buttigieg takes down a troll and Gillibrand helps a white Midwestern mother understand a phrase that Fox News often twists are the cultural supplements to the policy — not just helpful for the rest of the people in the crowd and all those who saw the videos, but sometimes the candidates themselves. As meaningful as it is to have a series of anti-racist proposals geared towards black voters, aiming for our attention and our votes, this is not a problem that we can solve because we did not create it. White people need to fix what is inherently a white problem, and that includes white politicians.
The only thing that concerns me with Buttigieg, in particular, is that for all these solid ideas, this is the mayor who through two terms didn’t make it a priority to diversify his own police force. He managed to raise nearly $25 million last quarter, leading all candidates. Polls aside, it is hardly out of the realm of possibility that we’re looking at President Pete. But he has to know that for all these shiny ideas, “because I couldn’t get it done” is not going to cut it in Flint or any other city where lead is poisoning our water or our house paint. It won’t cut it if black babies and their mothers keep dying at an exponentially higher rate, or if he can’t keep folks safe in cities like New Orleans, where the government’s protections appear to be ready to fail them again, then “because I couldn’t get it done” won’t get it done.
Buttigieg needs us — and we need him and his fellow candidates to not just make investments in black empowerment, but to get white people involved in the fight against systemic racism. Figuring out how to make that happen on a mass scale is not an enviable task. I wish them luck in solving the problem. Buttigieg quotes Douglass, fittingly, near the end of his proposal: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” We black folks have been echoing that clarion call for freedom, justice, and equality before Douglass’ time. It would do us good to have more help.
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