The latest national poll from Quinnipiac University shows former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg polling at 4 percent among African American voters. This, amazingly, counts as good news for the Buttigieg campaign, which in the past has polled at 0 percent among black voters. In this most recent poll, that dubious honor goes to the current white centrist darling, Senator Amy Klobuchar, who polled at 0 percent in the survey conducted between February 5 and 9.
Now that we are finally, thankfully, finished with the whites–only parts of this Democratic primary, it might be time for Buttigieg’s and Klobuchar’s supporters (and the Democratic donor class) to consider why their anointed saviors are critically underperforming with the black and brown base of the party.
It’s not because they’re white. Joe Biden is so white they probably have to hide the shoe polish in his house on Halloween, but he does okay with black voters. It’s not because people think they’re racist. Mike Bloomberg probably tried to frisk Barack Obama before he put him in his campaign ad, and yet he’s polling at 22 percent with African Americans. And it’s not because people don’t think Buttigieg or Klobuchar can win. All the media does is tell people that actual progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can’t win, yet those two consistently receive more black and brown support than the allegedly “electable” Midwestern white candidates.
It’s not their color. It’s not their gender or sexuality. It’s not even their policies or records that are holding them back with voters of color (their records are not great, but they’re still not Mike Bloomberg). It’s their unexamined white privilege, buoyed by their unearned status among the white media, mixed with their unnerving and incessant prattle about “Midwestern values” that has black and brown voters casting about for other options. It’s not that people of color haven’t “gotten to know” Buttigieg or Klobuchar. It’s that we know them all too well.
Every black person up in this mess has a Pete Buttigieg in their lives. He’s the white guy with the fancy degree and no experience who walks into your office, starts running your meeting, and walks out with your promotion. He speaks like he’s cribbed his lines from a motivational poster, except that, after every insipid statement, all the white folks start clapping and you never know why. He’s deeply concerned about your issues, and assures you that he’ll be “your voice” at the board meeting or the golf club you ain’t never been invited to. He’s nice enough, so you don’t want to hate him, but every time you look at him you think, “That’s the dude who got my parking spot.”
Buttigieg’s campaign is genuinely exciting. Being the first openly gay candidate to win Iowa (or kinda win Iowa) is an historic achievement and a major win for progress and equality. But that excitement wouldn’t be allowed to exist but for the bland, white, male packaging Buttigieg offers. Consider Lori Lightfoot for comparison. She is the openly gay mayor of Chicago, a Midwestern city roughly a bazillion times larger than South Bend, but every black person and every honest white person knows she’d have a harder time in white-bread Iowa than Buttigieg did.
Buttigieg supporters push back on the narrative that Mayor Pete wouldn’t be in the race, much less a front-runner, without his whiteness. And then they make the biggest mistake possible if their goal was actually to win over black voters: They compare Buttigieg’s credentials to Barack Obama’s.
It is an insult to black people when white people compare Buttigieg 2020 to Obama 2008. The mere suggestion that some 38-year-old mayor from the fourth-largest city in Indiana is in the same ballpark as Obama is infuriating and tracks with the casual way many white people dismiss or diminish the accomplishments of the first African American president.
Obama was a state senator for Illinois’s 13th district. That district alone is roughly double the population of South Bend, Indiana. Then, Obama was a United States senator. Even Rod Blagojevich knows “that thing… is golden.” And that’s not all. Obama burst onto the political scene not during some janky CNN town hall, but with a keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Buttigieg is “well spoken”; Obama will be remembered as one of the great orators of the 21st century.
Buttigieg, from the forced cadence of his speech to his choice of suits, seems to be leaning into the Obama comparison—to the point that when Saturday Night Live featured a skit this past weekend in which Buttigieg (played by Colin Jost) begged to be known as “#WhiteObama,” everybody knew what they were joking about.
But you know what part of Obama’s legacy Buttigieg is not stealing? Obama’s expansive, inclusive view of an America that bridges the urban/rural divide and centers on the shared values that unite us all. No, when it comes to that part, Buttigieg wants us to know that he was “shaped by America’s heartland.” As if some white guy on a tractor has a deeper, more inherently American set of hopes and dreams and influences than any brother riding the 6 train back to the Bronx.
Buttigieg’s paeans to allegedly Midwestern values are noticeable, but nobody hits that same note as religiously as Amy Klobuchar.
At a donor event, Klobuchar inadvertently summed up her African American outreach campaign. She acknowledged that African American women are the base of the Democratic Party but said “they need some friends.” And she continued, “When I look at this, I look at independents, and I look at moderate Republicans to add to our numbers.”
Instead of offering a vision of how she intends to help black women do the hard work of being Democrats, Klobuchar wants to make the party safe for Republicans. That’s like coming to the cookout with no food, no wine, and three white friends nobody invited.
Politically, this may be smart. Her campaign is basically a honking dog-whistle to aggrieved white people who voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Last night’s results in New Hampshire suggest that her message will travel, at least to other predominantly white states.
But Klobuchar’s version of the Midwest is heavy on the salt-of-the-earth stories about the white working class, and light on the unique challenges facing black and brown voters living in downtowns from Cleveland to Milwaukee. She does things like turning the Flint water crisis from a story about the abandonment of black people in a Midwestern city that is 53 percent black into a story about water infrastructure for all.
For a candidate who constantly talks about voters getting ignored, Klobuchar always seems to forget that Midwestern white folks are doing pretty well compared to their black and brown counterparts. Minnesota, for instance, has a median household income of $68,000 and change. That’s higher than the national average. But for black families in Minnesota, the average household income is $38,100. Klobuchar constantly says the Midwest is not “flyover” country, but it’s black and brown people, more than anybody else, who have been passed over in this economic recovery.
People of color notice this. We notice when candidates juxtapose the Midwestern, rural experience against the urban, coastal experience and judge America’s small towns to be more valuable and important. We notice when Klobuchar gets an easy ride on her prosecutorial record while Kamala Harris was the subject of New York Times exposés about hers from the moment she announced. We notice when Harris or Julián Castro get in trouble for attacking Joe Biden, while Klobuchar attacks everybody yet consistently gets hailed as one of the debate “winners” by media pundits. Just because they’ve been campaigning in white states doesn’t mean people of color haven’t been watching. Black people do not pop into political existence only when spoken to.
As a final insult, both Buttigieg and Klobuchar think they can turn their strong showings among white people in Iowa and New Hampshire into black and Latino votes in South Carolina and Nevada, just like Obama did. They don’t have a plan to do a better job competing for minority voters than what they’ve done through this point in the campaign. They just think that, magically, minorities will fall in line behind them now that white people have given them momentum. That’s the false lesson they’ve drawn from Obama’s path to victory in 2008.
Let me be the one to remind them that Barack Obama was black. Seeing white people vote for a black man in 2008 was, truly, new information. Obama got a bump in the black community, post-Iowa, because no black person had seen that happen before, and many of us didn’t even think it was possible. If you say you can walk on water, I’m not going to believe you. But if I see you out there doing a Soul Train line on the Mississippi River, I’m going to give you a second look.
By comparison, Buttigieg and Klobuchar have proven nothing to the black and brown community by doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire. People kind of assume that white people can convince other white people to vote for them.
A black candidate who was polling at 4 to 0 percent of the white vote in a Democratic primary would be dismissed by the media and other voters as a nonviable stunt in search of a campaign. A white candidate who has negligible support among primary voters of color, and no real plan to get any, should also be viewed as an unserious contender to win the nomination.
Being white has bought these Midwestern candidates an extra ten days or so to show nonwhite voters in Nevada and South Carolina that they have something more to offer than hoary tales about aggrieved and forgotten white folk. White people got to pick the contenders, but black and brown people will tell us who wins.