The narrative surrounding Pete Buttigieg’s inability to catch on with Black voters has dogged his campaign no matter how much pushback there’s been against that notion. A good deal of that negative perception has come from Buttigieg’s low polling among Black voters as well as a checkered past with the Black community and officials back home in South Bend, Indiana, where he was mayor for eight years.
That may be why folks on social media appeared to be caught off guard last week during the Iowa Caucuses when a group of Black women were standing behind him at a rally in Des Moines. The Buttigieg supporters of color were prominently placed behind him while surrounded by mostly white people, prompting accusations that they were strategically being used as props to promote images of the campaign’s efforts at inclusion.
One of those women was Ryann Richardson, the reigning Miss Black America and a surrogate on Buttigieg’s campaign who took issue with NewsOne’s coverage and pushed back on the narrative that Black people haven’t been supporting Mayor Pete all along.
NewsOne recently spoke exclusively with Richardson to clear up what she contended were misconceptions surrounding Buttigieg’s support within the Black community. In the wake of some of Buttigieg’s Black and brown staffers voicing concerns about an unwelcoming work environment, Buttigieg has also placed himself on the public opinion chopping block with his verbal gaffes regarding race. We asked Richardson to provide us with some insight on why she thought the dialogue surrounding his campaign appears to be less favorable than some of his opponents, as well as Buttigieg’s electability and why Black voters should support him.
So, what have we gotten wrong and how we can be more accurate in covering Pete Buttigieg?
“So, Monday night (Feb. 3), y’all saw a bunch of Black women on stage behind Pete Buttigieg and the inference, I think, that was drawn from a lot of the coverage was – Pete Buttigieg grabbed some random Black people to stage as props behind him, but the issue is that all of those folks are standing up there are actually longtime supporters of Pete. Some are staffer, I am a surrogate for Pete’s campaign. I endorsed him back in January and we are a small fraction of the many Black women who have been supporting Pete Buttigieg and attempting to do so quite vocally throughout his campaign but have had our stories and voices completely ignored by the media.”
Which side of the story has been left out about Buttigieg?
“It’s one version of Pete’s story they’ve told and it ignores the overwhelming number of folks who are saying something, the overwhelming number of folks from South Bend who are saying something that’s contrary to what’s in that narrative. It seems like the narrative works to the detriment of our community, who are completely unaware that there is a political candidate, who didn’t make some stuff up, who literally engaged dozens of leaders – Black leaders, policy experts, attorneys, mayors and activists to write a plan for Black America and it’s getting no visibility.”
Why do you think Buttigieg’s polling numbers are so low with Black voters?
“There are many reasons. The first off the bat is, this is a 38-year-old mayor from a small town in Indiana that up until a few months ago, no one had heard of the town or the mayor, and he’s competing against two other folks who are considered frontrunners, at least when it comes to the Black vote, who’ve both served in Congress longer than Pete’s been alive. So, there’s a definite name recognition advantage to those candidates. The other issue is that we have to consider this conflict of self-fulfilling prophecy or behavioral confirmation bias that comes from all stories about Pete only being that he polls poorly with Black people. A majority of Black folks in America don’t live in South Bend and probably don’t know much about South Bend at all. But if all they’ve ever heard about the mayor of South Bend is that he polls poorly with Black people, he’s not doing well with Black people, then that becomes the self-fulfilling narrative.”
Buttigieg’s Black and brown staffers that recently spoke to feeling ignored and that they essentially felt like they were hired as tokens and were quota hires, is there any credence to these feelings they have?
“I didn’t hear any direct quotes of anyone saying they felt tokenized or that they were diversity hires. What they said was, there’s a disconnect in the back loop, so to speak, from some of the Black and Brown staffers, who are largely younger staffers as well and some of the senior leadership of the campaign. That’s not to say there isn’t senior leadership on the campaign that are people of color – there are a number of senior leadership positions occupied by women of color. But there are definite challenges with connecting the cultural divide within an organization. Aside from supporting Pete, I worked at Uber for years. I was one of the co-founders of the companies that had an employee-led diversity and inclusion task force. If we had had in our time at Uber, senior leadership that took the proactive steps to build communications channels, to have roundtables to build these off-site retreats and commit days to inclusion work within the organization we would not have needed the work that we banded together to do above and beyond our existing roles.
Buttigieg has had several verbal gaffes regarding race. He made spoke on being homosexual helping him relate to the Black struggle. He also told a group of children that the Constitution signees didn’t know slavery was a “bad thing.” What would you say to Black voters who are trying to consider who their candidate is, while these comments have been made?
“As a point of clarification, I would say on the first front, Pete didn’t say that he understands the Black experience because he is a gay man. He said as a gay man who has had the experience of feeling ‘other’ in America and he can surmise having his civil rights threatened by who he is, he empathizes with Black people. He understands what it takes not to be in the center of the American ideal and in some regard be marginalized…And I get that, that resonates with me because there are women from Central America who are coming to our country with their children and being separated from them at the border. I don’t know what that is like, but I do know as a Black woman in America I empathize with any other woman who through American government action is victimized. And I think, most Black Americans do because we know what it’s like to be subjugated by America. If Pete thought he knew the Black experience he would not have built a team full of Black folks and Black women to advise him.”
What happens when voters who are trying to decide on candidacy and those issues, which have been amplified by social media or news media, causes their perceptions to shift or be skewed?
“I don’t fault anyone for reporting that story. And I don’t fault anyone for reporting on Pete’s record. I think it’s really important that we scrutinize him, especially Black media and Black voters, right? It’s important that candidates earn Black votes and earn Black trust…If we are to scrutinize a candidate’s record in regard to his relationship with Black voters or his performance on issues affecting Black folks or his plan for Black people, my great hope and expectation is that we would do that for all of the candidates in the race.”
The goal is to have the current president taken out of his position come November, but it boils down to electability. Although you say Buttigieg has policies that will directly affect Black people, why should they vote for him when his polling numbers aren’t as strong as other candidates?
“I’m here with you. I am all here for the practicality and pragmatism of Black voters. We are rightfully risk-averse because history has not shown us that taking a risk for Black people typically pays off in America – I get that. But, I don’t see Pete Buttigieg as a risk at all as the candidate. In fact, the only communities that he’s polling poorly is with Black voters and I believe wholeheartedly that he’s polling poorly with Black voters because of the effect of confirmation bias. If we keep saying, Black people don’t support him, then that kind of becomes a non-starter for Black voters to even consider him. Then the only thing that stands in the way of Pete Buttigieg’s electability is our willingness to tell the stories that Black people support him and the vision, the plan, the Douglass Plan for Black America that Pete and a whole host of Black leaders worked out…he’s electable. There is no doubt in my mind of that.”
*Questions and answers were edited for clarity and brevity.