Opinion: I fell for Pete Buttigieg at first. But he keeps screwing things up with black voters

Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg campaigns in South Carolina.
Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg campaigns in South Carolina.
(Getty Images)

When Pete Buttigieg burst onto the political scene, I fell in love.

During his first appearance on “The Breakfast Club,” he sounded right at home chatting with host Charlamagne tha God. Buttigieg told the multimedia show’s black listeners, “Let’s honor teachers like soldiers and pay them like doctors.” Months later, when Buttigieg answered a reporter’s question in Norwegian, it practically closed the sale. As a voter who studied abroad and is white collar, bilingual, and gay, just like Buttigieg, how could I not warm to the man? Our life stories had so much in common.

Now, however, my attraction to Buttigieg reminds me of “The Snowman,” a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. In the story, a snowman falls in love with a glowing stove he sees through a kitchen window. The household dog warns the snowman that his love for the stove is doomed, that he will melt if he gets too close to the object of his affection. Not only is “The Snowman” an underrated parable on the dangers of falling in love; it also captures my Buttigieg predicament: The closer I get to him, the more I feel the danger.

My native love for Buttigieg is melting because of how he mishandles race.

Recently, a 21-page memo emerged from the Buttigieg campaign reporting the results of an internal focus group conducted by the campaign: Many respondents, undecided black voters in South Carolina, reportedly said they would not support Buttigieg, because they were uncomfortable with his sexual orientation. That information was featured in news outlets across the country.


But is that really the problem? Some black voters may well be uncomfortable with Buttigieg’s sexuality. But I strongly suspect that homophobia is just a distraction from the more plausible cause of his sagging support among us black voters: his record on race.

Buttigieg’s missteps with black voters date back more than a decade, to before he became mayor of South Bend, Ind. in 2012. A recently resurfaced video from 2010 shows the future mayor talking about a South Bend tea party organization, Citizens for Common Sense. In the video, he reaches out to the group, saying he believes “we might find that we have a lot in common.” Did the candidate have no worries about the tea party’s racist associations, which were evident even then? As I wrote earlier that very year, the tea party was peddling white resentment against President Obama and racial minorities, disguising it as a principled economic stand. Rather than relying on economic arguments, many tea party groups also exploited violently racist falsehoods to oppose temporary relief programs for people most affected by the recession and to stymie passage of healthcare reform.

Then, after taking office in 2012, Buttigieg quickly demanded the resignation of South Bend’s first black police chief because of secret phone recordings the chief had listened to. On them, white officers, who had been recorded without their knowledge, allegedly made racist comments. Did the new mayor have no idea what kind of impact this would have on his black constituents? As they saw it, he came into office and fired the guy who’d uncovered racism on the police force.

And Buttigieg doesn’t seem to have learned from his errors. This week brought another misstep, when his campaign announced a list of prominent South Carolinians who had endorsed his “Douglass Plan for Black America,” which aims to “dismantle racist structures and systems.” Since its release, a number of the black leaders listed as supporters of the plan have said they do not back it, and many have endorsed other presidential candidates. Moreover, more than 40% of those on the list of plan supporters put out by the campaign are actually white. If that wasn’t enough, in promoting the plan, the campaign featured a stock photo of a black woman — who lives all the way in Kenya.

It’s not as though black voters are a monolith or that we vote strictly according to skin color. We are a diverse bunch, full of nuance shaped by our geographical location, gender and generation. The Democrats among us — a large majority — care about the same issues as other party members: a candidate’s ability to beat Trump, healthcare, education, reducing income and wealth inequality, student debt, and climate action. That said, after an especially savage five years — police brutality, Charlottesville, racially motivated mass shootings, continued mass incarceration, calculated legal assaults on our voting rights — we are tired of being taken for granted and betrayed. We are in no mood for yet another “triangulating” president who preaches to us about unity, then makes compromises that split the difference — with concessions delivered to the powerful and sacrifices made on our backs.

My shrinking love for Buttigieg boils down to this: His warm, everyman quality makes it difficult to tell: Is he Tony Blair 3.0, a monstrous lackey to the powerful, a closeted apologist for globalized inequality? Or is he a pragmatist who really will have everyone’s back?

By itself, any one of Buttigieg’s racial bungles is forgivable and not disqualifying. Taken together, however, they paint a picture of someone who is racially indifferent at best and a racial opportunist at worst. Any sensible black voter asks these questions of a politician: Is your concern for me authentic and do you have concrete plans for addressing that concern? I have not yet heard plausible answers from Buttigieg.

Being gay should not disqualify him in the minds of voters, including blacks; nor should it shield him from criticism. But as a voter, I get the sense that supporting “Mayor Pete”— and all his warm visions of pragmatism and compromise — will come at my expense. And that means I am nervous, as the snowman should have been, about getting too close.

Rich Benjamin, the author of “Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America,” is a contributing writer to Opinion. @IAmRichBenjamin