Pete Buttigieg’s Failures As A Candidate Should Not Be Scapegoated By A Trope About Black People
Paras Griffin/Getty Images for ESSENCE

James Clyburn was not technically wrong in his recent acknowledgment that when it comes to some Black voters – notably those of a certain age residing in a specific region like South Carolina – Pete Buttigieg’s sexuality might be an issue. 

In an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday, Clyburn noted that the matter was a “generational” issue. “I know of a lot of people my age that feel that way,” Clyburn explained. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise. I think everybody knows that’s an issue.”

Yes, as a former Real Housewife of Atlanta cast member might say dramatically, everybody knows that some old Black folks – especially the ones who love themselves some Jesus – might feel a way about a practicing homosexual becoming president. However, does this religious sect not exist within every community?

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Last week, a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll of registered voters revealed that 50 percent of respondents said: “they were either definitely or probably ready to have a commander in chief who is openly gay, compared with 37 percent who said they were either definitely or probably not ready.” When asked whether they thought the country was ready, “40 percent said they thought the country was ready, with 45 percent saying the country was not ready.” The poll results become even more pessimistic when voters are pressed on the attitudes of their neighbors’ likelihood of embracing a gay presidential candidate, and unsurprisingly, 58 percent of Republicans said they were not ready compared to 32 percent of independents and 22 percent of Democrats.

Buttigieg’s sexuality appears to be an issue for all sorts of Americans spanning race and ethnicity, but for some reason, when it comes to the challenges facing his historic campaign, the narrative taking shape is that it’s Black folks and their purported rampant homophobia largely dooming Buttigieg’s bid to become America’s first gay president.

I’m fully aware that some Black people are capable of bigotry, but to posit that Black people are susceptible to homophobia and transphobia more than every other group in this nation is an ugly lie. Black voters tend to be more religious than white ones, but did Black people arrive in this country on a cruise ship clutching our Bibles and wearing white Jesus themed merchandise (Jesus Is King merch, basically) en masse? 

That’s why Kamala Harris pushed back the way she did in a subsequent interview on CNN, rightly telling Wolf Blitzer, “To label one community in particular as being burdened by this bias as compared to others is misinformed, it’s misdirected and it’s just simply wrong.” Harris was not being dismissive of Clyburn — a self-serving interpretation from certain conservatives in media. What Harris was doing, though, was standing up for the dignity of Black people. 

As was Julián Castro, who once again offered needed nuance into a conversation centered on Buttigieg’s lack of appeal among Black voters at present moment by emphasizing his relationship to his Black constituents in the city of South Bend, Indiana where Buttigieg serves as mayor. In response, Buttigieg rejected the notion that he had a bad track record with voters in his hometown, saying he would be happy to walk around South Bend with Castro “if he wants to learn more about how we can tackle these really tough issues.” 

Castro was the mayor of a city that’s literally at least 10x bigger than South Bend and served as a cabinet secretary in the Obama administration. I doubt Castro needs Buttigieg’s tips, but hopefully, he found humor in Buttigieg’s hubris. Meanwhile, to Castro’s point, earlier this spring, multiple articles about Mayor Buttigieg’s relationships with his Black constituents in South Bend revealed criticism over the firing of the city’s Black police chief, the general poor relationship between the city’s majority-white police force and the Black community it serves, the displacement of Black residents, and allegedly lacking the willingness to use his political capital to handle the region’s school to prison pipeline. Over the summer, when a white police officer in South Bend killed an unarmed Black man, residents flatly told Buttigieg that they didn’t trust him. 

It’s probably why Buttigieg lost Black support in his mayoral reelection, but as I wrote earlier in the year, Black people will likely be scapegoated for a white man’s own failures to connect.

Still, isn’t it interesting how Black people can be chastised for not anointing Buttigieg for his inability to gain traction with Black voters over perceived inherent homophobia, but mums the word on Buttigieg’s Black constituents feeling displaced, left behind, and in some cases, left for dead by an unchecked police force? Almost as interesting as Harris and Castro being the two presidential candidates defending Black voters from stereotyping? What do they have in common, y’all?

And while the Buttigieg campaign claims they did not leak the internal campaign memo describing the Buttigieg campaign held focus groups in South Carolina that suggested “being gay was a barrier, as Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and columnist and author mentioned, “Pete’s attitude towards Black voters oscillates between dismissiveness and open contempt. His formulation of the problem always lays the blame and the work at the feet of Black people. In his view, it’s always their problem, not his.”

Indeed, Buttigieg acts as if the onus is on Black people, and partnering with him is a complicit and lazy media. Part of the reason why this false narrative lingers about Black people in spite of readily available data available to dispute it is that media continues to be majorly run and staffed by white people. If there’s anything white people in America enjoy doing collectively, it’s avoiding all types of conversations about their racism.

See white people making Donald Trump president.

See white people still responsible for Donald Trump being competitive in a reelection bid regardless of an utterly inept, repugnant, and very much criminal administration. An administration, mind you, that is the most anti-LGBTQ administration in decades — coinciding with a sharp rise in LGBTQ violence.

If those critics were truly concerned about the role prejudice plays in our elections, they wouldn’t have spent 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 trying to fool people into believing Trump voters were driven by “economic anxiety.” No, this isn’t about that. This is about making Black folks the fall guy for their white gay friend who goes out of his way to not offend them and make them feel good about themselves. 

The present theme of Buttigieg’s campaign – I’m gay, but you know, I don’t want to fight and centrism could use a new youthful spokesman – is the perfect bedtime story for white voters in Iowa. It recalls what Barney Frank said earlier in the year about the rising Democratic star. “His being gay is an advantage,” Frank argued to the Boston Globe, because it “gives people a chance to affirm their lack of prejudice.”

In an interview with USA Today published in April, Buttigieg said of Trump voters: “Well, I think it starts with a certain amount of humility and recognizing that how you voted doesn’t make you a good person or a bad person, and we shouldn’t think of ourselves as better human beings because of how we voted.”

Now, name any instance where Buttigieg spoke this supportively of the Black voters any person who aims to win next year’s presidential election needs?

Black people don’t know who “Mayor Pete” is, and from the little  we have heard from him is less than impressive. Bernie Sanders has improved his Black numbers since 2016. Elizabeth Warren has seen her Black support rise, too. What do they have that Buttigieg doesn’t? Many things – including consistent principles and policy positions – but more than anything, they have worked harder. 

By the way, for all this talk about Black folks and homophobia, do none of you people realize Black queer people exist and aren’t championing Buttigieg’s campaign either? I don’t understand why candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker could all speak about the suicide of Nigel Shelby, a Black queer teen fed up with bullying, but not him. That was a missed opportunity for Buttigieg to try and relate how his bouts with prejudice have made it better for him to relate to the struggles others might face.

But Buttigieg, like so many white politicians with ambition but not so much political acumen, took too long to realize he has to learn how to talk to Black people in order to get ahead. Buttigieg claims to realize he knows he has to earn the Black vote, but thus far, he has a funny way of showing it. It may be comforting for some to lie to themselves and make Black people the problem, but that won’t help your candidate fair any better with us.


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