Pete Buttigieg's real 'black problem': He has been convicted of white privilege

Michael J. Stern, Opinion columnist

When I came across Michael Harriot’s recent article titled “Pete Buttigieg is a lying MF,” I thought perhaps he had uncovered proof that the Democratic presidential candidate's Harvard education and Rhodes scholarship were lies that had been manufactured with Photoshop and a stolen diploma printer. Or that Buttigieg’s eight years in the Navy Reserve, and his deployment to Afghanistan, were actually a cover story for his time as a male stripper at a gay bar.

But no. Harriot's attack in The Root, an African American-oriented online magazine, was prompted by a 2011 interview in which Buttigieg said that "kids need to see evidence that education is going to work for them” in order to be motivated to get a higher education. Because many kids in minority communities “haven’t seen it work” for people they know, Buttigieg said, it’s understandable that they are skeptical about the value of education. For this expression of empathy, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was labeled a “baldfaced” liar.  

Harriot was furious that Buttigieg did not name systemic racism as the reason for black kids’ depressed college enrollment. But Buttigieg’s comment was not intended as a list of all reasons, only one. So when Harriot cited higher unemployment and lower income for black college graduates as two reasons black kids are less likely to go to college, it sounded an awful lot like Buttigieg saying black kids don’t see college working for them in the same way white kids do. It made me think Harriot’s anger was about something else.

A longstanding 'black problem'

To be fair, Buttigieg had a “black problem” before Harriot’s article. By most accounts, the problem began when he demoted South Bend’s black police chief in 2012, shortly after he was elected “Mayor Pete.” At the time, federal prosecutors were investigating the police chief in the illegal wiretapping of four white officers. The officers allegedly used racist language on the wiretapped calls, but that did not negate the impropriety of the wiretapping. 

According to Buttigieg, the U.S. attorney’s office told him that if the police chief stayed in that position, he’d be indicted. Despite the complicating factors, it appears that demoting the police chief spared him criminal charges and spared South Bend the problems that come with a chief of police under federal indictment.

Pete Buttigieg at a Sunday service on Oct. 27, 2019 in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

There was also Buttigieg’s statement at the Democratic presidential debate last month in which he said being gay helped him understand the struggles of the black community. To avoid any misunderstanding, Buttigieg said: “I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin.” But the impact of anti-gay discrimination left the mayor “sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate.” 

Buttigieg’s expression of camaraderie with another minority is a good thing, right?  Nope. It drew anger from the black community, with many feeling a privileged white man should not be comparing his struggle to theirs.  

Oliver Davis, a black South Bend city councilman who supports former Vice President Joe Biden, told The Washington Post:  “When you see me, you would know that I'm African American from day one.” Davis went on to describe how gays can hide the part of themselves that draw discrimination. With all due respect, someone should explain to Mr. Davis that closeting the most basic component of yourself for decades is not an asset and comes at an insidious personal cost. 

Absurd furor over a Kenyan model

Recent efforts to paint Buttigieg as an undercover bigot prompted an uproar over a stock photo of a black woman and child that was used to promote Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan, which is designed to dismantle racist structures and systems in the United States. The woman in the photo is from Kenya and was not aware her picture was going to promote the plan. The backlash was swift and strong. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for the Democratic nomination, tweeted: “This is not OK or necessary.” 

Here’s the thing, sometimes models come from different countries. And models in stock photos allow their pictures to be taken knowing they will be used for all sorts of advertisements. They don’t approve the ads in which their picture is used. That’s why the photos are called “stock.” And, spoiler alert: The models in ads of a happy family chowing down at the Outback Steakhouse may actually be vegans.

Buttigieg created a comprehensive plan to battle racial inequality by making changes to this country’s health, education and criminal justice systems, and he’s being skewered over a picture used to advertise it? 

Democrat rising: All eyes are on Pete Buttigieg, especially from skeptical black voters

This faux outrage is political correctness run amok. But it's also something more.

Pete Buttigieg isn’t just white. He is “I don’t tan, I burn” white. This has not escaped his black critics. Harriot notes that Buttigieg attended one of the best private schools in the country and that his mom taught at “an even better, more elite” school. The italics were included by Harriot, just to make sure no one missed the dig. And referring to the 2011 speech that ignited Harriot’s scorched-earth assault, he wrote that Buttigieg’s effort to acknowledge the inequality experienced by black kids was “explained whitely.”

In reality, Buttigieg has been convicted of “white privilege.” The phrase was originally intended to convey that white people in the United States have gained unfair advantages by virtue of being white. That’s indisputable. But the phrase has morphed into more than that. 

Be very ashamed of your whiteness?

Detonating the “white privilege” bomb on someone is a way of saying: “You only achieved what you’ve got through systemic inequality and you should be ashamed of yourself for it.” Actress Rosanna Arquette summed up the intended feeling this year in a tweet: “I’m sorry I was born white and privileged. It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.” 

Role model: Why we need Pete Buttigieg in the White House

Tearing at people like Buttigieg and dismissing their achievements as a result of white privilege is counterproductive. It is not necessary to feel guilty about being white to acknowledge the broad disparity between black and white America and fight against it. 

Our default should not be the belief that only people who look like us are willing to fight for equality. While acknowledging the original sin, we must also acknowledge that it was white men who split the country in two and risked their lives to bring an end to slavery. It was white men who secured women the right to vote. And it was a straight black man who was the beating heart that brought marriage equality, and the dignity that comes with it, to millions of LGBT people across this country. 

At some point, we will all find ourselves on the dangerous side of a borderline. It’s understandable to hesitate before reaching for the hand that held you down. But sometimes an extended hand calls for a leap of faith. Until he does something to legitimately call the sincerity of his intentions into question, Pete Buttigieg should be given the benefit of that doubt.

Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pete Buttigieg 'black problem' is 2020 political correctness run amok