Pete Buttigieg: white supremacy could be the end of America

Martin Pengelly in New York
Photograph: Olivia Sun/AP

White supremacy “could be the lurking issue that ends this country”, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has said. He added: “The entire American experiment is at stake.”

Related: Trump renews racist attack on Squad: 'They're not capable of loving the US'

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana made the stark comments to ABC News, in the midst of boiling national controversy over Donald Trump’s racist remarks about four Democratic congresswomen.

“That is the only issue that almost ended this country,” Buttigieg said. “We’ve had a lot challenges in this country, but the one that actually almost ended this country in the civil war was white supremacy.

“It could be the lurking issue that ends this country in the future, if we don’t wrangle it down in our time.”

The civil war was fought from 1861 to 1865 and resulted in the end of slavery in southern states. It is commonly accepted that around 620,000 soldiers died. Some estimates are considerably higher.

Since running for office in 2015, Trump has both failed to convincingly disavow support from the far right and expressed racist views. Most notoriously, when white supremacists rallied to defend a statue of Confederate general Robert Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 and a counter-protester was killed, the president insisted there were “very fine people on both sides”.

Replacing a racist historical structure with a more neutral current one is not enough

Pete Buttigieg

On Sunday the president returned to the offensive against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, leading progressive voices in the House, all of whom are from ethnic minorities.

Trump said last week the congresswomen should “go back” to the “places from which they came”. Only Omar was not born in the US. At a rally in North Carolina on Wednesday the Minnesota representative was the subject of a chant of “send her back” which the president and his allies have failed to fully disown.

Trump claims to have quieted the chant. He did not.

Buttigieg was one of a host of prominent politicians to defend the congresswomen in an incident which united the Democratic party. Some Republicans have remained silent, some have mildly criticised the president and some have supported him outright.

Buttigieg has, however, had his own problems on race, concerning the shooting of an African American man by a white police officer in South Bend last month. As the incident brought national attention to the 37-year-old mayor’s record in office, he left the campaign trail to meet relatives and protesters.

Buttigieg told ABC: “The key to dealing with racial discussions in the country is honesty. And that means honesty about how we got here. It means honesty about what we are up against.

“Also, in my view, it means treating racial inequality as a specialty issue, as an issue to be talked about with audiences of color only – but as something that frankly white Americans need to take more seriously.

“The entire American experiment is at stake in whether we can manage to deliver prosperity in a way that your race has no bearing on your income, your wealth, your employment opportunities, your experience with criminal justice [and] your ability to vote.”

Related: Pete Buttigieg: police killing exposes mayor's troubled history with minorities

He added: “We’re just not there and we won’t get there until we acknowledge that replacing a racist historical structure with a more neutral current one is not enough.”

Buttigieg is an Oxford graduate and Afghanistan veteran who would be both the first openly gay president and the youngest ever.

He surged in polls after announcing his candidacy in April and currently places fifth on the realclearpolitics.com national polling average, behind Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and the frontrunner, Joe Biden.