Buttigieg’s mediocrity reveals racism in his supporters

There’s a phrase that comes to mind when I consider Pete Buttigieg: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Of course, the phrase has a complicated history; I don’t mean it in the way it was originally used. When I use it here, I mean that Pete Buttigieg is milquetoast mediocrity and I am confident that white people’s support of him is based in racism.

Why do I think white people’s support of Buttigieg is based in racism? For two reasons. First, he is not well-qualified for the position of the president of the United States of America. He’s only been a semi-successful mayor of a relatively small city; he’s had no federal experience. And, second, his policy ideas are so “centrist” they’re practically Republican.

Why are those reasons racist? Here’s where the soft bigotry of low expectations, or maybe “dancing backwards in high heels“ comes into play. We white people have extraordinarily high expectations for candidates of color. Na’ilah Amaru, policy strategist and Iraq veteran, said it well, discussing Kamala Harris leaving the campaign, “…women of color understand from our own lived experience: We must be twice as good for half the opportunity—and even then, that may not be enough.”

The fact that he is even being considered a serious candidate with so little experience is an example of how low the bar is for white men. The current president is another example, of course. The candidates who are people of color all have so much more experience than Buttigieg, but the bar for them is higher. Most of the candidates of color also don’t have the connections to global consultancy firms like McKinsey & Company for fundraising opportunities (most of which are closed to the press). So, yes, supporting Pete Buttigieg is racist because he’s not as qualified as most of the other candidates and apparently that doesn’t matter to you; for you, it’s enough that he’s a book-smart white man.

The other reason that supporting Buttigieg is racist is because his policy ideas are almost exclusively non-threatening. Nothing he is suggesting requires radical change in our white supremacist systems. He doesn’t support Medicare for All and he wants to increase military spending, for example. Here’s a good example of how wishy-washy and not-radical he is, when asked about a wealth tax: “I think we certainly need to consider a higher marginal tax rate for top income earners. Maybe it doesn’t have to be as high as it was historically, but we should at least admit that when it was higher, the American economy was growing pretty well. We should consider a wealth tax.” Notice that he’s not saying we should do it, only that we should consider it but not at too high a rate. That’s how he talks about anything approaching actual change. He uses lots of subtle cues to appease more conservative or wealthy voters.

I will also freely admit that I don’t trust him because none of the Black people I know on- or offline trust the guy; there’s plenty of press coverage about his lack of support among Black voters. I don’t think all Black people are always right, but the overwhelming dislike of this candidate by Black people is something I take seriously.

Plus, racism is rampant in South Bend. 26% of the people in South Bend, Indiana are Black but 0% dollars of the government contracts have gone to Black-owned businesses. There is a consistent lack of support from Black and Latinx voters in his small city. Referring to Buttigieg’s “1,000 homes in 1,000 days“ project, “[B]lack and Latino residents panned the aggressive blight eradication project that put local homeowners at the mercy of inflexible bureaucrats, did not incorporate community voices and concerns as much as it should have, and cast the pall of gentrification on those neighborhoods.”

The fact is, I can’t prove that you like Buttigieg because he’s white and doesn’t threaten to radically change anything. I’m sure you have reasons that make sense to you. But as Rafia Zakaria writes in “Why is Kamala Harris gone while Pete Buttigieg is still here?“ “while there is no direct evidence (there never is) [emphasis added] that a combination of race and gender hastened the end of the Harris candidacy, it is true that all the front-runners left in the democratic field are white.” I believe the same reasoning holds true for why I’m confident that white people’s support of Buttigieg is racist. As Gabrielle Gurley of the Prospect says, “Contemporary problems cannot be willed away with an earnest demeanor, good intentions, and a plan named for a fabled abolitionist by someone who has shown himself completely unqualified to sweep away the detritus of the country’s original sin.”

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Crying over spilled water? It’s more than that when it comes to interracial interactions

Last May, I attended an event called “Telling the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations.” At this event, Shay Stewart-Bouley (our own “Black Girl In Maine”) and a white author named Debby Irving modeled for the audience what it is like to discuss issues related to race across racial lines.

The weekend before this event, Shay and Debby had been hired to speak at the Seattle Equity Summit. Before she and Shay went on stage, Debby was sitting in the audience with a little plastic cup full of water sitting at her feet. The water spilled in the hubbub of people moving around. She did not clean up the water or even acknowledge the spill to the person next to her before she went on stage. When Debby was on stage with Shay, that Black woman who had been sitting next to Debby publicly called her out for her water getting on her personal belongings and framing this as racist.

At the May event, Shay and Debby talked about the experience they had in Seattle. Shay explained how disappointing and infuriating it was to be let down, once again, by another white woman. Debby explained how it had taken her a while to come to understand her thoughtless behavior as “racist.”

Now, spilled water may seem a small thing, but it is bigger than that. The issue isn’t that spilling the water was racist per se. As I understand it, the impact of Debby’s thoughtless behavior with the glass of water was more than that one action. It was a whole history of white women treating Black people as less-than. Her actions were racist not only because they were inconsiderate to a group of mostly Black and brown bodied people, but because it was yet another example of white women expecting people of color to clean up after white people. Also, a presumption that “mere water” isn’t a big deal (and yet what might have been in the other’s woman’s bag that might have been ruined by moisture—this is something that hadn’t occurred to Debbie in that moment or even in the hours and days following having her actions labeled racist).

The fact is that it is easy for white people to disregard the feelings of people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC). Doctors routinely assume Black people have higher pain tolerances and employers routinely assume people of color won’t “fit into” their workplaces or won’t be as good at a job as a white person no matter what their resume says otherwise. And this is an example of when an entire group is complicit, because most of us white people do things like this often without thinking about it. Cutting off non-white people more readily in lines, for example, or making assumptions about them.

Now, sure, you can say that treating white people as a monolith and talking about how we are all a lot like Debby in thoughtless racism is wrong. You could argue that Shay, for example, shouldn’t be seen the spokesperson for all Black people or that Black people shouldn’t be judged by the crimes of a minority of other Black people because Black people are not a monolith. You would be right, but there is a distinction to be made here: BIPOC move in a world that not only assumes the worst of them, but also holds them responsible for every tiny mistake they (or even others like them) might make.

To point out the racism of white people even in seemingly small actions and indicting the whole group, to a certain degree, isn’t some kind of “reverse racism” here. White women like me haven’t had to fear negative consequences of our racist behavior most of the time. The fact is, if I am thoughtless in public it is safe to assume I am supporting white supremacy. I am a part of the group that has consistently behaved in racist ways, so my behavior carries the history of my group. This awareness helps me as I practice being in the world in more thoughtful and considerate ways.

One of the reasons I recommend you hire Shay if you need a speaker or a consultant on issues of race and related social issues is that if you’re anything like me, you know we white people need a lot of practice being with Black people and many other people of color. We need to shed our fear of making mistakes; we need to break free of our desperate need for approval, too. We need to realize that as a group, white people have indeed made a terrible system filled with racism and we need to own that, as well as to stop blaming other groups for the damage and hurt they incur from that system.

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Photo by Ethan Sykes from Unsplash

What (relatively small) prices have I paid in the name of anti-racism?

NOTE FROM BGIM: While much of the content at BGIM Media is definitely for the education and mobilization of white people to fight racism, I have tended to reserve the space for “feelings” primarily for Black and other people of color. There is a need for safe spaces for white people to “work out their shit” but it is not my ministry to provide such space (nor should that generally fall to any person of color; that’s white people work). That being said, it probably bears reminding to some people that white people striving to be anti-racists do have significant internal struggles and do pay prices for their efforts. And so with that in mind I run this latest post by Heather Denkmire, with the caveat that even more so than most of her posts, this is primarily aimed at the white readers of BGIM Media.


We white people need to have more conversations among ourselves where we process what it’s like to be effectively anti-racist. The costs can be small at first, but they can feel big. I suppose this is a kind of a trigger warning for Black and Indigenous people as well as other people of color: This post will be addressing my white-person feelings. In future posts, I will address some of the larger prices we white people might have to be willing to pay as we practice being anti-racists.

Recognizing that I can benefit from racism and still be a good person was a complicated process that I’ve already written about. It’s ongoing. I have to remind myself regularly that while I’m trying to break free from the whiteness that has been my reality for all of my life I’m also still benefiting from other people’s oppression. There are many resources available to explain what “whiteness” is, but Nell Irvin Painter’s piece in the New York Times is an excellent primer. So, one price I pay is space in my brain for a lot of cognitive dissonance: good person but benefitting from a bad system. Both are true.

At some point in my racial identity development, a bell rang that hasn’t yet stopped ringing. I can’t just watch television, listen to songs, attend social events, hear about my daughters’ days at school, sit in a coffee shop—all of my everyday life is permeated with awareness of how white supremacy has built it up, how whiteness rules most spaces, and how it used to be easy to not know. It’s not the same as when I started to be aware of my own racism, it’s not something that makes me socially uncomfortable most of the time. It makes me angry, frustrated, and it sometimes makes me feel helpless. Again, this is uncomfortable. I have had to do some grieving now that I am keenly aware that almost everything I know is infused with white supremacy.

Grieving the loss of once-pure parts of our lives certainly isn’t a whites-only experience. In great part because of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, many of us have had to change how we view people we used to hold in high esteem. Would I ever consider watching The Cosby Show again? Not enjoying a television show certainly seems a small price to pay, but when awareness of racism means just about everything is now tainted with the stench of white supremacy, it requires some adjustment. It also requires emotional and intellectual effort to not adjust in the ways white supremacy wants me to: numb it out, minimize it, look away, change the topic, somehow pretend it’s not so bad. Or maybe make a big deal about it, get outraged and furious and tell everyone how awful it is to continue enjoying [insert latest #MeToo disclosure] person’s work. Sometimes excessive outrage can be another way to distance ourselves from the ugliness.

Similarly, a price I pay is the awareness of white supremacy coloring how I experience so much of what I have loved in my life. For example, my daughters’ beautiful childhoods were extraordinary in part because of the ways I benefit from white supremacy. With this new lens, can I still feel sweet nostalgia for the days when I sat with my young children on the edge of a stream (on occupied Wabanaki land) by an old farm home (purchased family wealth passed down for generations, built on white supremacy’s slavery and segregation) breathing in the fresh and clean mountain air? Being an antiracist surely doesn’t have to mean throwing away everything in my life, does it? These kinds of questions are complicated and require a lot of thoughtful consideration, and sometimes lead to changes in my behavior.

Even just writing this out has my mind going in so many directions. Is this self-serving navel-gazing? Does it seem like I think I’m special because I have thoughts and feelings about white supremacy? (The answer to that is no.) Is it centering on whiteness in a way that’s inappropriate for this blog? I mean it to be an example of what I experience as a white person addressing my racism and becoming an antiracist. I know that relative to the daily violence racism forces on people of color, it is a walk in the park. But I feel strongly that if we white people don’t “process” what’s going on inside of us as we try to figure out how to be white without supporting white supremacy, we’ll keep slipping back into the relative comfort of ignorance.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.