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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Pete Buttigieg’s appeal is very much tied to race

“I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me—and before I share what’s in my plans, let me talk about what’s in my heart and why this is so important. As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low-income, for eight years, I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg said this during last week’s presidential debates and if you’ve ever wondered why he hasn’t connected with Black voters, that quote should explain it all. Let’s go through it.

First of all, if you want to connect with people, maybe taking it as a personal challenge isn’t the way to accomplish that. I mean, if you’re a politician, the reason for connecting with people—especially voters—especially Black voters, should be because you actually want to help us, not because you’re the type of dude to welcome challenges. For Pete, the best place to start should be asking himself why it’s such a challenge in the first place.

That brings me to the next part of this quote, “…let me talk about what’s in my heart and why this is so important.” The fact is that Pete has a whole lot of problems when it comes to race. The discussion can be about that truth or the discussion can be about what he claims is in his heart. One discussion is about facts and can lead to an actual solution. The other can only lead wherever he wants because it is about something only he can know. This is not an argument meant to persuade Black people. We know better. It is meant to comfort white people.

It is uncomfortable to know that the racism that works through you is about action and systemic momentum. It’s uncomfortable to know that for racism to stop you have to take action to help reverse that systemic momentum. It’s uncomfortable to know that you will have to confront your friends and family. It’s much more comfortable to think of racism as something you get to define, perpetually excluding yourself. It’s much more comfortable to think that everything will be OK as long as you yourself never become whatever you define as evil. It’s the most comforting, privileged, irresponsible and easiest thing in the world to believe that your claim of what’s in your heart should take any kind of priority.

Politically, it’s kind of his only move, though. If I were some craven asshole running a campaign and knew that my candidate had only ever worked against Black people, I might tell him to say the same thing. I might say, “Look, Pete. You’ve fucked over a lot of Black people in South Bend, so we’re gonna paint you as a good guy with a good heart who’s just out there trying to do the right thing. We might even take advantage of the racist stereotype of Black homophobia and then the Blacks will just look like homophobes who don’t have the good sense to support a good man with a good heart! Remember, we just have to get the nomination. The Blacks will come around eventually!”

That seems cynical, but so is the rest of that quote. I don’t know how many mayors you’ve met, but I’ve met a few and not a single one has ever “lived and breathed” the “struggles of a community.” Contrasting his financials with the racial wealth gap of his city shows us how much his argument struggles to live and breathe.

Buttigieg is not the first Democrat to stand on a national stage and claim to support Black causes while having a nearly exclusive history otherwise. But he is the first to do it in the Trump era. With the desperation of white Democrats to have anyone but Trump in office combined with his dismissal of his own place “in living memory,” Buttigieg scares me.

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Appealing to the middle hurts almost everyone but the right

I’m certainly the kind of person who will point to the presidency of Barack Obama with some amount of pride, if only because he got as much done as he did with a GOP-controlled Congress for much of his time in office and their reluctance to let a Black man achieve anything in the Oval Office. Also the fact that two terms yielded no real scandals related to the Obamas—and certainly no crimes—except for things like the horrific “taking off his tie during the workday” and “putting his feet on the desk” and “the infamous tan suit” situations. A lot of white people really needed fainting couches for those terrible faux pas that were so much worse than shady deals with the Contras or starting wars in the Middle East that weren’t necessary except to help U.S. businesses or gutting environmental, educational and civil rights regulations and laws or anything else that past presidents, especially Republican ones, have done.

At the same time, I’ve often side-eyed President Obama and Michelle Obama for too often not really hitting home the problems of systemic and institutional racism (yes, Barack Obama gave a couple good speeches about race but he didn’t work very hard to move the needle) and for defending groups like the police far too often when the killings of unarmed Black people were becoming more and more a visible phenomenon in America. You know, as well as other pandering to white people and white-friendly institutions. I get that maybe he was just trying to avoid getting himself and his family killed while he was in office but I also think he did his fair share of selling out.

And Obama has disappointed me again with an appeal for Democrats to not be “too radical” because if they are they won’t win.

“This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement,” he said at the annual meeting of the Democracy Alliance. “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

Also: “Voters, including Democrats, are not driven by the same views that are reflected on certain left-leaning Twitter feeds, or the activist wing of our party. And that’s not a criticism to the activist wing. Their job is to poke and prod and text and inspire and motivate. But the candidate’s job, whoever that ends up being, is to get elected.”

So, what he is saying is, “tone that left-leaning stuff down if you want to win.”

Win what?

Win more concessions with the GOP, which has gone so far right that to compromise with them and “meet in the middle” is to essentially enact conservative—or at least slightly right of center—policies? How is that even considered progress? The way I see it, that is simply more erosion of liberal ideologies and a big high-five to a corrupt status quo.

You know, those revolutionary ideas were what gave workers weekends and workplace protections and gave women and non-white people the right to vote like any other adult and gave us the Social Security and Medicare programs that conservatives tap into just as much as liberals do even while they pretend they hate the programs…you get the idea; people have said it thousands of times before me and better.

In a time of more and more activism among young people moving a lot of things to the left—not to mention a pretty decent number of older Americans who are sick of seeing women’s bodily rights stripped away and are weary of more videos of police brutality against Indigenous people and Black people and so on—shouldn’t we be revisiting how far from the left the Democrats have strayed?

We don’t have to look any farther back than Bill Clinton to see what making deals with Republicans to “meet in the middle” gives us. It gave us, among other things, a gutting of the social safety net (“welfare”) that made it even harder for people to get out of public aid or rise above it (it just cut them off and threw them away) and led to situations today when Black women have to leave their kids in the car to go to a job interview because welfare ran out or they have to work while on welfare and then they get charged with a crime for doing what they were told they had to when they can’t possibly afford child care to allow them to go to the interview they have to go to—or else.

Sorry for the ramble there. This gets me heated.

President Obama did a lot of good and was (and is) probably a good man with good intentions. But the Overton Window has moved so far to the right in the days since I was in middle school that there is precious little left-friendly representation or action at the legislative/policy levels nationally, in the states or locally.

This false “appeal to the middle” notion (what middle—the middle between Nazis and Reagan stans?) is just pandering and rolling over to expose our bellies to the claws and teeth of our enemies. Apparently Obama forgot to check the memo from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Moderates will not save the Black people and other POC (or women or Muslims or LGBTQ+ people or anyone else on the margins) from the ravages of the right. They will only tone things down when they go a step or two too far (well, sometimes they will) and then later once they settle back into the cozy status quo forget that we never took a step or two back to get to the “bad normal” and also ignored the fact we actually needed to go several steps back to get to actual freedom and justice. Instead, they let the horrible stuff stand for years or generations and then finally move that back a little and then call it “progressive” that they did so.

That’s straight-up BS. Grade-A horse dookie.

Just like that photo of Michelle Obama hugging up on George W. Bush (and more) and people talking about “See, the Dems and the GOP just need to do more of this and things will get better!” No, things will get worse. Just like Ellen DeGeneres buddies up with the same war criminal and inept bastard that got us into years of warfare for no good reason and almost collapsed the U.S. economy and shows herself to be more in league with the position she has with wealth and whiteness than she does with people on the margins—LGBTQ+ people like her among them.

Except that as bad as those two women’s cozy behavior is, Barack Obama’s is worse because as a former community organizer he should know better. The system is not set up to be of help to people who need help—it exists to boost up people who already have so much wealth it’s obscene. The problem is not the left—the problem is that the left has been so effectively gagged. Unions have largely been stripped of their ability to advocate for workers, social safety nets are ripped to shreds and for the most part people can’t even afford healthcare or retirement anymore unless they are among the lucky Baby Boomers (white) who got all those nice government handouts that made them middle class—then they promptly got into power and denied those same chances to Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z.

We need more noise from the left, and more action. We need the left to regain support and power, not to have it undermined by people in power who made deals with the Devil and called it progress.

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