Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP/Wilfredo Lee)

Mayor Pete has a problem: How can black voters trust he'll fight for them?

If Buttigieg can't fix policing problems in South Bend, Indiana, how can he fix the nation?

D. Watkins
June 29, 2019 3:00PM (UTC)

Pete Buttigieg has a problem with African Americans and it’s spiraling.

When he launched his presidential campaign, I wanted to like Pete. He’s a millennial leader, a young mayor of South Bend, IN, with an impressive record: Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a graduate of Harvard University, and he speaks like a zillion languages. Pete is also an openly gay mayor in a country poisoned with homophobia, which means that his ideas, talents and work ethic were strong enough to conquer bigotry. That skill set offers something that our country is in dire need of, especially in an era where we have an openly racist president who proudly promotes the opposite of progression.


I didn’t think Buttigieg had the chops to be president this time around; however, he could’ve completed a strong ticket the with energy needed to crush Trump and push our country in the right direction. This all changed for me back in April when I heard Buttigieg tell Anderson Cooper during a CNN town hall that incarcerated people don’t deserve the right to vote.

"Part of the punishment when you are convicted of a crime and you're incarcerated is you lose certain rights,” Buttigieg said. “You lose your freedom. And I think during that period it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote."


I haven't ever done hard time, but I know what it’s like to sit in a cell for nothing other than the color of my skin. I have too many family members and close friends who were arrested for nothing due to stats-based policing, or given unfair sentences based on nothing other than the color of their skin. Our system is broken — too broken for Buttigieg to be so firm on that particular issue.

As a white man, I don’t expect him to understand how easy it is for a black person to be arrested, but as a politician and a person who wants to lead this nation, I expect him to understand that according to the Sentencing Project, a third of black men have felony convictions, and that’s not a mistake, that’s not a weird coincidence, that is racism at work. Not to mention that inmates are counted as part of city and state populations, and those same cities and states receive federal-dollars based on their populations, so why shouldn’t incarcerated people get the right to elect the people who will ultimately have the power of allocating those funds?

Buttigieg’s problems peaked during a town hall held in South Bend late last week after a black man was killed by the police.


“You’re running for president and you want black people to vote for you?” said an African-American woman in attendance said. “That’s not going to happen.”

“Ma’am, I’m not asking for your vote,” Buttigieg responded.

“Pete has a black problem,” Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), the former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know of one black person out of Indiana that supports him.”


People who have little to no support in their hometown normally don't go far in presidential elections. We saw this recently with former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley during his failed run for the Democratic nomination in 2016.

Buttigieg got a chance to address the South Bend shooting and his poor response to the lack of diversity in the police department he oversees Thursday night during round two of the Democratic debates on NBC. Rachel Maddow  addressed Buttigieg directly on the subject: "The police force in South Bend is now 6% black in a city that is 26% black. Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?"

Buttigieg responded:


Because I couldn't get it done. My community is in anguish right now because of an officer-involved shooting, a black man, Eric Logan, killed by a white officer. And I'm not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. The officer said he was attacked with a knife, but he didn't have his body camera on. It's a mess. And we're hurting.

And I could walk you through all of the things that we have done as a community, all of the steps that we took, from bias training to de-escalation, but it didn't save the life of Eric Logan. And when I look into his mother's eyes, I have to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back.

This is an issue that is facing our community and so many communities around the country. And until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there is a wall of mistrust put up, one racist act at a time, not just from what's happened in the past, but from what's happening around the country in the present. It threatens the well-being of every community.

And I am 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 exact same thing...

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper responded by comparing South Bend to the problem with policing in country, "I think that the question they're asking in South Bend and I think across the country is why has it taken so long?" He then gave examples of things he did to address problems with racial bias in policing back when he was the mayor of Denver.

California Congressman Eric Swalwell, who was itching to get a jab in, then yelled, "But you're the mayor. You should fire the chief — if that's the policy and someone died."

Buttigieg followed up Friday with an appearance on "Morning Joe."  Al Sharpton acknowledged that the mayor called him after the  South Bend town hall and then asked if he had a plan to diversify his police department.


Buttigieg ran down a laundry list of things he's tried to do in an effort to hire more black cops before saying that he failed. "It's not a South Bend problem, it's a national problem," said Buttigieg.

If he can't fix the problem in little ol' South Bend, then how does he expect to spark change in America?

I hope Buttigieg learns that African Americans' problems can not be addressed by simply talking to Reverend Al Sharpton or a black caucus about black issues and inserting terms like "systemic racism" into his talking points. Sharpton is a rich man whose reality isn't even close to that of the woman who yelled at him in South Bend. He should be talking to her. Initially Buttigieg took the Biden route by choosing not to fall on his sword. I'm glad he's evolved, because that strategy won’t get him too far. Now that the problem is in his face, I hope he choses to side with the people.

African Americans are not a monolith. Buttigieg will have some black supporters. But some issues — like mass incarceration, voting rights and police brutality — disturb many of us, and he needs to understand that. Being a man of the people isn’t about touting your lopsided record, telling people what you think they want to hear, or memorizing academic terms about racism while ignoring the trauma that has been historically inflicted on whole groups of citizens. Being a man of the people is about listening to the people, understanding their problems, acknowledging your mistakes and then fighting to create outcomes that benefit everyone.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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