As an out, proud, gay American, I am excited about the emergence of Mayor Peter Buttigieg as the first openly gay presidential candidate. He is a tangible candidate but a bit of an anomaly. He’s unconventional obviously on the traditional landscape, but yet with his military background, intellectual prowess (he speaks seven languages), and charismatic husband, Chasten, he is perhaps an ideal candidate for office in these modern times.
Every day it seems America grows more accepting of the possibility of electing its first gay president, but new criticisms have surfaced regarding Buttigieg’s somewhat lukewarm relationship with his African American constituents. If he’s not careful, that relationship could turn cold completely and freeze him right out of the presidential running.
In a recent report by the African American news source, The Root, many black residents from Buttigieg’s South Bend community acknowledge that he inherited baggage from the city’s dark racial history. This history includes school segregation, which due to neighborhood zoning, remains somewhat in play today. Then there is the systemic racism that for decades has kept minorities from rising in executive and legislative positions. Whereas Buttigieg is not to blame for these deeply rooted issues, the complaint is that as Mayor, he has not done enough to correct them.
There have been some notable symbolic gestures though. One in particular strongly resonated with older black citizens in South Bend –the renaming of a main street, to honor Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. However, if this was an attempt by Buttigieg to make amends to the community, I agree with The Root’s assessment that it’s a pretty standard effort.
There is a level of trust Buttigieg realizes he must now earn back with the black and Hispanic communities in South Bend; faith lost due mainly to his controversial 1000 homes in 1000 days program – a demolition effort implemented by the mayor to remove abandoned homes throughout the city. Many of the abandoned houses were deemed eyesores by local government but they were a direct result of the city’s loss of industrial jobs and auto manufacturing going back decades. Most impactful, the car giant Studebaker closed its doors in South Bend almost 50 years ago, and with that loss came unemployment from which many never recovered.
With Mayor Pete’s demolition plan came a devastating debacle when many of the homes ordered for demolition were discovered to have been previously purchased by residents from within the mostly black and Hispanic populated neighborhood.
These citizens had been organizing to revive their community and they had plans to fix up the homes; some as rental properties, others as offices for new businesses, and non-profit organizations. Unfortunately, once the homes got added to the Mayor’s demolition list, that was that. The demo plans moved forward despite community protest.
This perceived act of callous leadership had a profound effect on black residents, namely Regina Williams-Preston, who told The Root after this happened, “she got into politics so that the city wouldn’t do to anyone else what the mayor’s big redevelopment plan did to her.”
The Mayor’s plan to move forward demolishing 1000 homes in 1000 days seemed to be gentrification at its worst. Williams-Preston, as well as others, lost everything they spent on the several investment properties they hoped to repair but couldn’t immediately for their varied personal reasons.
Despite all that there is a brightside for Buttigieg. The takeaway is that there is nobody I’ve come across in my research who thinks he is racist in any way, but instead he is perceived by many black people in his community as being cold and data-driven. Many residents are willing to give him a chance to make ammends with the urban communities of South Bend but it comes with skeptisms from others.
The person they know, who came through town carelessly with a wrecking ball to their dreams does not align with the man they see charming the pants off of America. Given the power of the black vote and its ability to influence elections, Pete Buttigieg is going to have to rebuild his relationship with the black community – a task far more complicated than demolishing the houses in their neighborhood.
This piece is an opinion piece by one Contributing Writer for Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of the magazine or other Contributing Writers.