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Mayor Pete and the Black Community

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Last week, Charles Blow, a New York Times opinion columnist whose work I generally admire, wrote a blistering attack on anyone who claims that Pete Buttigieg’s campaign has what might euphemistically be called “a black problem,” a distinct lack of support in the African-American community that is directly tied to Buttigieg being gay.

Blow begins with a bang:

“Reducing Pete Buttigieg’s struggle to attract black support solely to black homophobia is not only erroneous, it is a disgusting, racist trope, secretly nursed and insidiously whispered by white liberals with contempt for the very black people they court and need. I have never been blind to this — the people who see black religiosity as an indicator of primitive thinking and lack of enlightenment. (For the record, I am bisexual and not a religious man.) They are those who see black people as a blight on our big cities, pathologically prone to violence and in need of pity and crumbs they cast about and call philanthropy. They see these black voters as needing to be led, directed, and better informed rather than as sophisticated voters fully capable of making informed decisions that they believe are best for their lives and communities.”

But then Blow begins to cite his evidence, and the first people he attacks is a focus group consisting of black voters:

“The latest round of blaming black homophobia for Buttigieg’s lackluster black support came last month when McClatchy obtained the report from a focus group the Buttigieg campaign had conducted with black voters. According to McClatchy, the report found that ‘being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly for the men who seemed deeply uncomfortable even discussing it… Their preference is for his sexuality to not be front and center.’”

Blow next grows defensive:

“First thing to note here is the size of the group: only 24 people.”

That’s hardly surprising. It was a focus group! (I’ve been in focus groups; they were smaller than 24 people.)

Next:

“The second thing is that focus groups aren’t scientific surveys. As Liza Featherstone, author of ‘Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultati­on,’ has put it, ‘Focus groups are not a scientific and quantitative method of gathering knowledge.’”

I don’t recall anyone making that particular claim.

“But none of that mattered,” Blow pushes on. “This fed a narrative that liberals — including some older black politicians and pundits — have nursed. [My emphasis] A raft of articles was published. Social media posts started to fly.”

Blow continues:

“South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn was asked about the focus group on CNN and he fed into the narrative, saying: ‘That is a generational issue. I know of a lot of people my age who feel that way.’ The anchor asked if Clyburn was saying that for older African-Americans Buttigieg’s gayness was an issue, and he responded: ‘Yes, it is. There’s no question about that. I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise because I think everybody knows that’s an issue.’”

“Really?,” Blow writes incredulously.

I’m incredulous, too, because Clyburn is black, just like the participants in the focus group.

“Is there homophobia in the black community?,” Blow continues. “Of course. Is it higher in the black community than in other communities? It is. But even that needs context.”

Context is good; I like context. The problem is, the context Blow provides doesn’t support his point, let alone his outrage:

“Acceptance and rejection of gayness is highly correlated to religiosity. Black people in general are more religious than other racial groups. But, while black Protestants are more opposed to same-sex marriage than white Mainline Protestants (more moderate), they are more supportive of it than white evangelical Protestants (more conservative), according to a May Pew Research Center report.”

Now wait a minute. Citing as evidence that black homophobia is not a factor in black people’s below-average support of Pete Buttigieg a comparison to the vicious bigotry of white evangelicals is not an effective rhetorical strategy.

Blow then finds more useful footing for his argument:

“Buttigieg isn’t the only candidate struggling to strengthen his support among black voters. He will have to appeal to that group like he appeals to any other, by listening and being responsive. And he’s already doing that. A June Post and Courier-Change Research poll of likely Democratic primary voters found: ‘Most notable is Buttigieg’s growing support from black voters. He collected six percent African-American support, good enough for fourth this month, after he received none in May.’ Black voters generally favor candidates with a demonstrated history of loyalty to the community. Buttigieg is a young man, relatively unknown, and with a curious history on race relations in South Bend, Ind. He will have to get over those hurdles.”

Now the fact is that Buttigieg does have a problem with black voters that has nothing to do with homophobia in the black community and everything to do with his spotty record of dealing with black people, is evidenced by his firing of a popular African-American police chief in South Bend, Indiana, where he’s mayor.

And there’s more:

“Over the summer of 2019, an unarmed Black man was killed by a white cop in South Bend. This was following the fact that Pete fired the city’s first Black police chief and saw the percentage of Black police officers cut in half on his watch.”

That quote came from an Advocate article by George Johnson.

And there’s more:

After Charles Blow’s piece hit the stands, the Buttigieg campaign totally botched the rollout of a policy statement that had been specifically designed to address the candidate’s lack of support among black voters but turned them off instead. As Gay City News’ Matt Tracy reports: “Perceptions that out gay presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor, has a problematic relationship with African-American voters were compounded by his campaign’s rollout of a press release and open letter in which several South Carolinians listed as backers of his Douglass Plan for Black America said they did not in fact support the plan and felt the campaign misrepresented them.”

Not good, Pete. Not good at all. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m supporting Mayor Pete’s candidacy, despite my being significantly further to the left than he is, because he’s smart, articulate, would eviscerate Trump in the debates, and, far from incidentally, he’s the first gay candidate who has a real chance of winning. I’m appalled by his blunders with the black community, and I’m hoping he resolves them as soon as possible.

It may already be too late.

Updated 12:30 pm, November 22, 2019
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