Buttigieg’s Promise Stumbles over Racial Justice in his Backyard

July 3, 2019

The Nation's Jeet Heer upacks the contradictions of Pete Buttigieg, a combat veteran and Ivy Leaguer who rebuilt his city by not paying attention to police brutality or the Black community

The Nation's Jeet Heer upacks the contradictions of Pete Buttigieg, a combat veteran and Ivy Leaguer who rebuilt his city by not paying attention to police brutality or the Black community


Buttigieg's Promise Stumbles over Racial Justice in his Backyard

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. Addressing issues of race and racism are not mere topics to discuss, but are front and center in defining our body politic and— more to the point for this conversation— define the heart of what it means to be a Democratic elected official or candidate in these elections. During the recent Democratic debates, two candidates were felled, or at least deeply wounded, because they could not adequately address how they failed in the battle for full racial equality in this country at one level or another. Former Vice President Joe Biden could not, would not, really tackle how he opposed busing and why, and how he might have changed or didn’t change, and how he aligned himself with the segregationist Senators from the former Confederacy. Or more to the point for this conversation, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg— despite his contrition onstage— could not justify his inaction in addressing the needs of his city’s black community, or the death of a young black man at the hands of the police, or why so few police officers are black in his city.

Jeet Heer, National Correspondent for The Nation who wrote about all this in an article for that magazine and is also author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays, and Profiles. I love the name of that book. —Joins us to parse through it. And, Jeet, welcome. Good to have you with us.

JEET HEER It’s good to be back.

MARC STEINER So Jeet, let’s begin with this clip from the debate. This is where Pete Buttigieg is being questioned by Rachel Maddow and his response.

RACHEL MADDOW 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?

PETE BUTTIGIEG Because I couldn’t get it done. 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.

MARC STEINER I mean, unlike Biden, at least he was contrite and was trying to say I screwed up and couldn’t get it done, right?

JEET HEER Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I think the contriteness was a very human moment and was very welcome, but I think that as a whole, his answer was very inadequate because I don’t think he acknowledged or is even aware of the depth of his failure. He said he tried, and it didn’t work. Well actually, the percentage and number of African American cops in his city that he’s mayor of has gone down dramatically since he’s been mayor, and they’ve had huge issues. Starting with one of his first acts as mayor, was the firing of a black police chief who had a conflict with cops that he said were making racist comments. Also, Mayor Pete, you know, his big selling point is that he’s the mayor of this, you know, Rust Belt city that is very diverse and he’s made it grow. But, you know, if you actually look and talk to the African American citizens of that town, they tell another story. And I don’t think anything he said on that stage really comes to terms with that failure.

MARC STEINER So as you mention that, we have a clip here of his interaction that took place before this debate with African American residents around this issue of the police killing Eric Logan and more. And so, let’s take a peek at this.

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA RESIDENT I just want to make sure that you are aware that we’re looking for no comfort. We want transparency, total transparency in this case.

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA RESIDENT There needs to be more meaningful conversations with a more diverse group because what you see tonight is that African Americans are not monolithic. We do not have the same ideas, thought, and opinions. [crowd applauds]

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA RESIDENT Get them off the streets! Any racist is at the damn desk. Put them at the desk. Make them do paperwork.

PETE BUTTIGIEG I will say that if anyone who is on patrol is shown to be racist, or to do something racist, [crowd murmurs and shouts] in a way that is substantiated, that is their last day on the street.

MARC STEINER I mean—Well, let me not comment. Do you have a desk? You comment. [laughs]

JEET HEER [laughs] I think viewers saw what was happening there. There was people who are angry, justifiably angry, and he really came across as, you know, not able to address their anger or provide a really good answer. And one should, you know, just for some context, there’s been a lot of community concern that he hasn’t done stuff that he has in his power to do. As mayor, he can appoint the board that watches over the police and there’s been a lot of pressure to make that board more responsive to African Americans, and he hasn’t done that. There’s a particular cop who’s involved in this case who drove the man who was shot to the hospital and he died in the car. And that cop has had a string of incidences, and there’s been a lot of pressure for Buttigieg to do something about that and he hasn’t. So I think—And then more broadly, Buttigieg’s staff is not very diverse. And as mayor, he’s really governed as a, sort of, gentrifying mayor.

He’s done a lot of great things for the, sort of, middle-class whites that are moving into South Bend, whereas the more rooted African American community hasn’t seen any benefits. So he really has no answer for that, and I think that’s a real problem just on a simple of it’s a problem for him as mayor. He needs to address it. That’s his job, but he’s also running for president of a party, you know, where a quarter of the primary voters are African American. And he’s among the whitest, if not the whitest candidate in terms of the support he has. There are many polls that show him at, you know, 1-2% among African Americans. I just saw a poll where he is at like 1% among Latinos. You know, he is under Yang who no one considers a serious candidate. [laughs] So I just think like—And so, all of his support really is among, you know, middle-class professional whites and that’s a real problem. I mean, that is one part of the Democratic base that’s considered the wine track, right? A good candidate, like Obama, appeals both to the wine track and appeals to the beer track— the more working-class voters who are like black, Latino, and white. And this is a candidate that only appeals to wine drinkers.

MARC STEINER So one of the things that is so distressing about this is when you—So if you just take Pete Buttigieg as an example, and you look at cities across the country, it’s not unusual for cities not to address the question of gentrification without dislocation, without moving people away from their communities, and how you build a balance in a city. What’s shocking to me is that so many mayors and other people running parts of their cities— whether it’s Baltimore or New York or Boston or San Francisco or South Bend— haven’t got it. And that’s the part of the racism that is so, kind of, embedded systemically in the system, embedded so deeply in consciousness that people don’t even realize it’s there and they’re doing it. And I think that’s part of what Pete Buttigieg, who is a bright guy, you know, just doesn’t get.

JEET HEER Yeah. He’s a bright guy, but also when he wants to address these issues, his solutions are technocratic solutions. Like, he’s a big advocate of body cameras for police and he implemented that, but guess what? They had the shooting. The cop took off his body camera before the shooting, right?

MARC STEINER Right.

JEET HEER So you still have, you know, cops with questionable racial attitudes. You know, all the body cams in the world are not going to change that. You actually have to go much more root and branch. He’s, for whatever reason, he’s unwilling to take on the power structure in a city that is, you know, committed to having this overwhelmingly white police force, and then that’s a real problem. And he thinks—And the solutions he offers are gimmicks. I mean, it’s okay gimmicks. It’s good to have body cameras, but that’s not going to solve this.

MARC STEINER No. It’s not going to solve that, and I wonder what you think in a broader sense. We’re going to be covering this election pretty intensely, obviously, over the next year, year and a half. How is this going to play out both in terms of the primary but in terms of the general? I mean, the Democratic Party is obviously much more diverse than the Republican Party. This is where a majority of black voters are. And so, how do you think this plays out in terms of who becomes the next candidate, and what it says about what might happen in this general election coming up?

JEET HEER Yeah. I think that, just on a very basic level, I think a candidate like Buttigieg really can’t go forward just because his support is so overwhelmingly white, so I think that’s going to be a real difficulty for him. And it’s not just a matter of who he can support, but how he can position himself as a candidate. I think he just doesn’t have plausibility on this issue. And so, I do think that the candidates that are—You have to have a candidate that can build a multiracial coalition and Joe Biden who is the other candidate who ran into problems—

MARC STEINER Right.

JEET HEER You know, he actually has done that partially through long-standing ties, partially through name recognition, partially through being Obama’s Vice President, but he might be facing problems now, as well. So I think that you have to ask who are the candidates that can do this. I think Harris might be able to do this. I think Sanders— certainly if you look at the people who are supporting him, despite the myth of the Bernie bros— Sanders actually has been doing quite well. About half his supporters are people of color. I think that Elizabeth Warren is much better than Buttigieg, but not quite there. I think she actually needs to build up some support among African Americans and Latinos. You really have to have a candidate that has a multiracial coalition— both to win the primaries and to win the election.

MARC STEINER Right. And to be able to cross those class boundaries and within the working-class itself, bringing people together instead of dividing them up. That’s going to be one of the biggest issues.

JEET HEER That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Exactly and I think the race part is tied to the class part. He’s actually the candidate of the professional middle-class, which is overwhelmingly a white class.

MARC STEINER Right. Well, Jeet, it’s always pleasure. This is great. Two times in the last week we’ve talked together. We look forward to a great deal more as the campaign revs up and your writing revs up for The Nation. I’m looking forward to talking to you a great deal more.

JEET HEER Always good to talk.

MARC STEINER All right. Take care, man. Good to have you with us here today.

JEET HEER Yup.

MARC STEINER And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us. Take care.