Pete Buttigieg Wasn’t Wrong

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Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has been getting some flack this past week for comments he made in 2011 regarding how education can often be perceived by children growing up within low-income and minority communities. According to Michael Harriot, writing for the publication The Root, Mayor Pete just doesn’t understand systemic racism and he’s pretty sure those comments are proof.

During his first race to become mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg made the following statement during a televised forum:

“Kids need to see evidence that education is going to work for them. You’re motivated because you believe that at the end of your education, there is a reward; there’s a stable life; there’s a job. And there are a lot of kids — especially [in] the lower-income, minority neighborhoods, who literally just haven’t seen it work. There isn’t someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education.”

Michael Harriot, stating that he “wanted to be clear” about what he thought about this statement, called Buttigieg a “lying motherfucker.” He then went on to prove Buttigieg’s point by citing quite accurately all the ways in which African American youth in particular don’t see the rewards of receiving an education nearly as often as their white counterparts do. For example, Harriot points out that “the unemployment rate for black college graduates is twice as high as the unemployment rate for white grads.” Harriot adds, “Black college graduates are paid 80 cents for every dollar a white person with the same education earns.”

In other words, there really are “lots of kids — especially [in] the lower-income, minority neighborhoods, who literally haven’t seen it [getting an education] work.” The reason so many African-Americans don’t “testify” to the benefits of getting an education is it hasn’t benefited them, or at least hasn’t done so nearly to the same degree as it has whites. So what is it that Mayor Pete is allegedly “lying” about here? What is it he doesn’t get?

Following the publication of Harriot’s article, Mayor Pete decided to call him and spent about 20 minutes mostly listening to his concerns. However, this effort is apparently just more evidence of Buttigieg’s supposed inability to grasp the problem. The Guardian’s Poppy Noor asks us right upfront in a headline whether a phone call “is the best we can hope for?” from Buttigieg. Apparently, according to Harriot, Buttigieg did eventually ask him during their phone conversation “Do you disagree with the point I was making?” This, according to Noor, demonstrates Buttigieg doesn’t understand he made a mistake.

So what’s the mistake? Are these writers alleging kids don’t really benefit from seeing evidence that education will improve their lives? Are they claiming evidence of systemic racism doesn’t include poorer post-graduation outcomes for African-Americans and other minorities? If mom or dad or a big brother or sister go off to college and can’t find work afterward because of their skin color, isn’t Buttigieg right to point out this at least has the potential to produce a negative feedback loop that results in fewer and fewer minority children actually seeking educational opportunities in an effort to escape poverty?

There was nothing racist let alone tone deaf about Buttigieg’s remarks. But even if his concerns could have been stated more artfully than they were we should be taking these comments as an opportunity to open up the discussion about racism and its consequences rather than alleging the candidate raising the issue is a “lying motherfucker.” Unfortunately for the African-American community, the lesson candidates are most likely to learn from this kind of attack is to avoid talking in depth about racism to the greatest degree possible in the future because the cost of a misstep is just too high. From this point forward we can probably expect them to increasingly stick with adjectives like bad and terrible when describing racism and avoid discussing its tragic consequences for individuals and communities who continue to endure it.

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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