As the Democratic nomination race shifts to the South and into states with more African American voters, the party’s white front-runners must directly confront the question of race and explain how their policies uplift black America. Each of them has been criticized for harboring a superficial understanding of American anti-blackness, if not manifesting outright racism. Amy Klobuchar has a questionable prosecutorial record; Joe Biden has drawn criticism for his voting record on civil rights legislation; Elizabeth Warren’s campaign was accused of marginalizing staffers of color, for which she apologized; and Bernie Sanders was criticized for conflating the conditions of poor whites with people of African descent.
But it is Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who arguably demonstrates the most consistent racial ignorance among his cohort. Not only does he hold a dismal record in representing the black residents of his municipality, but his past musings on race and the state of black America — from his 2011 discussion of young black kids failing due to the lack of role models, to his invocation of the “All Lives Matter” mantra just five years ago, to the recent accusations that his campaign uses black supporters as political props — expose shallow analysis of systemic racism throughout his political career.
To his credit, Buttigieg rarely tries to rationalize these remarks and promises to work through his past mistakes regarding race relations and systemic injustice. But his recent remarks invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. should keep concerns about his commitment to addressing racism front and center. While Buttigieg encouraged Americans to “recommit” to King’s work, and asserted that we can realize King’s dream by building a future defined not by exclusion “but by belonging,” he repeated a common error committed by white Americans in King’s time and today. His posts said nothing of the specific plight of African Americans and appeared to invoke a colorblind vision of post-racial unity that many incorrectly ascribe to MLK.
For many on the left, Buttigieg represents the corporatist, moderate wing of the Democratic Party, in which candidates court donations from billionaires, support continued military engagements and reject the expansion of social programs. It is this demographic of “white moderates” that now-celebrated figures such as King vocally criticized. In 1967, King published his fourth book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” in which he called for equitable housing and education, condemned systemic inequities that left black people poor and marginalized and warned against craven allies who betrayed the principles of the civil rights movement. His message — both the ideas he advocated and the allies he warned against — still matter today for a Democratic leadership struggling to lead on issues of racial equality.