A recent poll by the Post & Courier demonstrated something my black activist and political friends and I had been saying for weeks: Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a black voter problem. Most starkly, the poll reveals that Mayor Pete has nearly no support among black voters in South Carolina, where they make up two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate. So any momentum Buttigieg gains in Iowa and New Hampshire (where black people constitute 2 and 3 per cent of the electorate respectively) will be halted in South Carolina, causing him to limp into Super Tuesday (Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia) after a crushing, highly visible defeat.
Unless, that is, Buttigieg addresses his issues with black voters now.
How did Mayor Pete get into this situation? Like many others, my first impressions of Mayor Pete during the election for head of the Democratic National Committee left me impressed both with his narrative and his intelligent, relatable speaking style. Then I discovered that South Bend, Indiana has one of the highest murder rates in America, and that still other indicators of prosperity has the city below national averages and indeed Indiana averages. Whether you’re looking at home ownership, educational attainment, unemployment, or income, Mayor Pete’s town is not in great shape.
Add to these issues of concern to black voters the fact that out of all of the people running for president, only Mayor Pete and President Trump have ever been personally sued for racial discrimination. The fact that this is not disqualifying to white Democrat voters is discouraging to many black voters.
My white friends saw Pete’s CNN Town Hall and were enamored with him. On the other hand, my black friends and I bristled when he discussed his demotion of a black police chief and casually dismissed the movement to permit inmates to vote.
For these reasons it does not do to chalk up Mayor Pete’s problems with the black electorate as some expression of a homophobia allegedly pervading the black community. It is true that discussions over LGBTQ justice sometimes become more fraught among black people who struggle to transcend the anti-gay biases of the Baptist church, for example. But many of the black activists and politicos I know are gay, lesbian, trans, fluid, or allies. To ignore their criticism of Mayor Pete out of a suspicion that they are actually speaking from a position of bigotry would be lethal to his candidacy.
How can Mayor Pete overcome these problems reaching black voters? He is one of the most talented orators in this crowded election field. When President Obama was presented with the words of Reverend Wright, he did not run away or try to sidestep the charge that Wright’s full-throated venting of black anger somehow reflected poorly upon Obama. Instead he faced it directly with a powerful speech in Philadelphia, telling us all that where race in America is concerned, “we have to make a way out of no way.”
Pete is mayor of a city that is one quarter black. He served in the military, where people of color make up 43 per cent of the men and 53 per cent of the women. In some ways, he should be uniquely qualified to address race in America.
If I were advising Pete, I would suggest he release a list of potential nominees to the United States Supreme Court, a list full of black men and women. Justice Thomas is the longest serving justice and has failed to live up to the legacy of Thurgood Marshall. A list comprising qualified black men and women would be a strong signal of Mayor Buttigieg’s commitment to black voters.
At this point I support Senator Elizabeth Warren, because her constant roll-out of policy positions has produced a vision of America worthy of my daughter. Buttigieg does not have to be Warren, but he needs to acknowledge with empathy the concerns that animate black voters like me. His voice might be the most important on that debate stage: an openly gay man talking about an America that works for all of us. This is a voice our country has never heard from such a stage before. Unfortunately, unless he changes course, 20 per cent of the electorate will not see themselves in his vision of our country.
Mayor Pete, you speak seven languages; can you speak to black people?
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