Thirty-seven-year-old former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg is an openly gay military veteran, Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar who speaks eight languages. He has gained attention as the youngest amidst the current slate of Democratic candidates. But it’s his ongoing struggle to build trust with black voters that could doom his candidacy as the Democratic primaries draw closer.
Buttigieg is polling well at around 22 percent in Iowa and around 8 percent nationally. With black voters, however, Buttigieg is polling around 4 percent, and in South Carolina, a state where the majority of Democratic primary voters are African-American, he is polling below 1 percent. Since states like South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama all provide a large pool of delegates to candidates that finish strongly in their primaries, whichever campaign can create the most enthusiasm among black voters will go far towards winning the Democratic nomination.
“When you’re new on the scene, you’ve got a lot more work to do to earn that trust,” Buttigieg said on a recent appearance on “CBS This Morning.” Despite Buttigieg’s words, the story of his flailing connection with black voters is rooted in more than his fresh face. It is compounded by problems emerging from his hometown of South Bend, where racial tensions have come to the forefront under his tenure as mayor.
There was his decision to demote black police chief Darryl Boykins over a wiretapping scandal, his handling of a shooting involving a white police sergeant whose body camera was off and did not record the incident, and his controversial push to bulldoze or repair a thousand vacant houses in largely black and Latino communities in a thousand days. All have contributed to the frustration that his actions and policies belie unfamiliarity, little tact, and a thin record of engagement with African Americans.
That he recently acknowledged being “slow to realize” that Saint Joseph County schools (where South Bend is located) were still racially segregated – despite a federal consent decree to integrate – illustrates a tendency for him to overlook the complex and layered nature of race dynamics in America.
One explanation for Buttigieg’s low level of support among black voters is that older African Americans hold conservative views and won’t support an openly gay candidate. That this bias persists is unfortunate, yet it fails to tell the whole story. Buttigieg’s candidacy mirrors former President Barack Obama’s, who, as a black candidate, had to demonstrate and build familiarity with older white moderate voters, many of whom shared their own biases against black leadership.
Racist perceptions of black candidates have held back promising public servants in states across America, which is why 10 states still have yet to elect a black official statewide. Some point to Obama’s political talent as the root of his ability to bridge racial divides. But Obama’s charismatic public speaking was not all it took to convince moderate white voters, many with years of inherited skepticism, that America was ready for a black president.
Obama’s memoir shows how his actions were more deliberate than just relying on talent. “The Audacity of Hope” describes clear attention paid to white community members in rural and downstate Illinois, as Obama practiced the promise of mutual understanding. He described this as a “quotient of trust” and sought opportunities to build it before he ran for president. As a result, he spent less time playing catch-up on the campaign trail and spoke to issues concerning white audiences the way he spoke about his own family. Over time, he learned how to sound more like a concerned neighbor and less of a distant policy wonk.
The awkward roll-out of Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan – a comprehensive agenda to combat systemic racism through education, housing, criminal justice, health care, and fiscal policies – is but one example of how his campaign has stumbled out of the gate on the issue of race. The immediate confusion over which black political and community leaders had endorsed him or just the ideas in the Douglass Plan, and some admittedly unfair viral hashtags, have all made him the poster child for Democrats who do most of their engagement with black voices right before an election.
Buttigieg’s struggle should be studied by competitors in an increasingly less diverse Democratic primary field. It is essential, in an era of extreme political corruption, for political leaders to take meaningful steps to understand those they wish to serve, especially before it’s needed politically.
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a graduate of the University of Chicago with a B.A. in political science. He has a passion for political advocacy and public service and lives on the South Side of Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com.